Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Noise and The Numinous: November 2006

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity. In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man... I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence—as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.” —Albert Einstein

I read the first part of that quote the other day. I was in the smallest room of my house reading Woman’s Day. It was the only magazine available. Really. I found the complete quote in the essay by Einstein, The World As I See It. It can be found online at numerous sources. Google is my friend. The quote got me thinking about how people do not like mystery, unless it is in the form of a paperback novel. Mystery is the currency that art and science live by, it is the mystery of the unknown that keeps artist looking forward to new works, and the mystery of why, how and the unknown that keeps scientists working away. It is also the sense of mystery that powers religions. And when they attempt to put a forth a literal answer to the mystery that creates fundamentalism. When I say “fundamentalism,” I mean in all walks of life. Every branch of religion has fundamentalists, every branch of science, and every arts movement. Fundamentalism kills mystery. A person extrapolates a universal meaning from an individual experience. Then the fundamentalist verbiage gets strapped on, the words that try to kill mystery, “The problem is that you don’t believe like we do. If you believed what we believe, you would know the truth, and there would be no problem.” (I’ve read that, or similar sentences in Buddhist, Muslim and Christian writings that I can think of off the top of my head. And I’m sure it is in more.) And where is the mystery in knowledge of the “truth?” This of course creates an immediate us vs. them condition, (believers vs. non-believers) and anything you might say fuels their belief and falls into what “they” (of the infamous “them”) want you to belief. Conspiracies abound…paranoia grows…orthodoxy defined…heretics denounced and destroyed…all in the name of fundamentalism. It never ceases to amaze me, we see this behavior in so many groups: from UFO believers to religious to dietary to political believers…it is the same behavior. As a musician, I’ve run across different kinds of fundamentalism recently. I’d like to coin a term, “geographic fundamentalism.” I experienced this in regards to music, and it always shocks me. I was recently told that if you are a jazz musician and you don’t live in New York City, you don’t know anything. I was pretty shocked. Because, yes, NYC has some great musicians, but so does Los Angeles, Paris, San Francisco, Chicago, London…even Tehachapi.

There seems to be a part of the human psyche that needs to know, wants to know concretely about the eternal mysteries of life. (Should I list them?) Some part that needs to be able to claim the special knowledge and special experience that gives the right to tell all that our specific individual experience is valid universally for everyone. Of course, in the telling it invalidates differing individual experiences. The truth is, a specific individual experience is just that. It has truth and validity to that individual. And that is good. But when individuals start saying their individual experience is better, more real, more powerful, and more truthful than others then the mystery and variety of human experience get torn apart, invalidated, and the value of the individual is lessened. Fundamentalism of this type fuels destruction in everything from personal relationships to wars that are tearing countries apart.

So, after looking over this column I realize I’m fundamentally against fundamentalism.

So I guess I’m a fundamentalist, too. But is this sort of fundamentalism creative or destructive?

The Noise and The Numinous: October 2006

O.K., I just got back from yoga at the gym. I quit. I quit my original yoga studio because it was too expensive. Although I did like hanging with the rich folk. But the yoga class I now attend at the gym is just awful. People noisily walking in and out, the guy next to me sounds like he is from the tuberculosis ward, and the lady next to me looks like she belongs in the tuberculosis ward. The teacher, speaking through a headset microphone, sounds like some low rent self-help guru purchased on cassette from the 99-cent only store played back through a cheap Radio Shack stereo. The sound of rap comes in from the main door every time a clueless person walks in and out and the sound of the racquetball hitting the wall next door is mercilessly irregular, like waiting for the shoes from a three-legged man and his multitudinous, similarly appendaged offspring living in the apartment above you to drop on the floor. One at a time. Constant, but irregular. Oh yeah, that smelly guy next to me who just got out of kick boxing taking of his shoes and socks and waving them around to dry them? Yeah, that smells great pal, thanks for sharing. Plus throw in the cheesy sound track of synthetic crickets, frogs and fake Native American flute played on a synthesizer and you get the point. What do fake insects, amplified amphibians and synthesizers have to do with yoga? Once again, the noise invades the numinous.

I began yoga around 1995, a mere eleven years ago. It was really different then. (Now I sound like the old fart at the campground telling me about his 1984 Tioga Arrow, “RV plumbing was different then, pee three times and your holding tank was filled.”) But hey, yoga really was different only a few short years ago. There was a sense of people that wanted to have a total experience, mind and body together, joined in the opus. Now, as the girl waiting to get into class said, “Like, yoga, you know, is ALL about the core muscles.” Yeah, right. America has once again gone beyond just the mere exploitation of spirituality: it has reduced the spiritual to a tangible commodity, an Aether driven ab toner.

I even subscribed to Yoga Journal. It was cool, all this trippy stuff and interesting articles. Don’t buy it now. It is like reading an issue of Vogue or Cosmo, with the models just in tighter clothes. (Wait, maybe I should re-subscribe.) All the ads are abhorrent. Ad after ad for the right book, clothes, food, retreat, whatever to make you into the ultimate yoga person. Like dressing right will make you more yoga. Even cruises. Get spiritual while pigging out on one of those buffets . . . so much for forward bends, probably can’t even see your toes after one of those boat trips. What an image, one of the greatest spiritual traditions in the history of the world being joined with one of the most affluent materialistic traditions. Sweet. Maybe they have “poverty berths” so you can have the joy of the yoga without the offending materialism. Now wait, I’m not against cruises, but it does seem an odd pairing.

It all began with the rock stars and celebrities. Damn them. Why did they have to come to yoga and brag about it to all the media? Sting, Madonna, Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Gwyneth Paltrow, to mention but a few. I don’t begrudge them doing it, but did they have to tell everyone? They’ve evangelized yoga into the mainstream. And while on one hand I’m happy for everybody that is doing it (because it really is a miraculous thing), on the other hand I wish everybody would not come to the class I attend. I mean everybody. Good gawd. That is the thing about these stars: they can afford private classes. While they end up riding the Cadillac of yoga, I end up in the Greyhound bus next to the asthmatic guy with dandruff and the oozing skin condition.

Yet I kept going back. Around eleven years. Because it really does feel good. I really recommend it. But I won’t be there anymore.

I’m going to stay at home and get spiritual in the privacy of my own home . . . with my DVD player and large collection of, ahem, commercially produced yoga videos . . .

Saturday, March 10, 2007


After thinking about it for several years, I have made the decision to return to graduate school and further my growth and development as an artist, to gain skills as a scholar, earn a PhD, and prepare to teach at the university/college level. It was interesting working to find a school (or schools) that would embrace my desire for a broad spectrum of studies (performance, composition, improvisation, technology), but I am pleased to say that I found several programs that weren't opposed to such studies, and the one with the best fit for me is right here in California.

So, I am quite excited to announce that starting in September 2007, I will be in the music program at UCSD working on a PhD in CSEP. (I guess I better get used to acronyms.) I have to admit, I am stoked.

The Critical Studies and Experimental Practices (at the University of California, San Diego) program with Mark Dresser, Anthony Davis, David Borgo and other very notable faculty members.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Noise and The Numinous: August/September 2006

I write a column for the Tehachapi Mountain Signal...and have decided to start posting them to my blog. I will catch up as time permits.

My first two columns follow:

The Noise and The Numinous (August)

“It is altogether amazing how little most people reflect on numinous objects and attempt to come to terms with them…” —Carl Jung, Answer to Job

Carl Jung introduced me to the word numinous, an adjective indicative of an awe-inspiring manifestation, one that elicits an experience that is at the root of all belief, the experience of the wholly other, a sense that you have come into contact with the divine, transcendent, the sublime. Jung did not coin the term: that honor goes to the great German scholar of comparative religions Rodolf Otto. Otto created it from numen, a Latin word associated with divine power. Numinous describes – free of dogmatic and specific religious context – the experience of coming into contact with the wholly other (Otto’s ganz andere). That which is numinous is powerful beyond our day-to-day experiences. It is this contact, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans (further explored in Mircea Eliade’s Sacred and Profane), that has brought about the belief in gods, the supernatural, the creation of religions, myths, art and stories that tell the fascinating history of human consciousness. Jung would even say that the creation of religious dogmas, rituals, and practices has been necessary to protect some people from the sheer power that is experienced when coming into contact with the numinous. But dangerous or not, the experience of the numinous and the belief it brings about in something wholly other, is at the heart of creativity and the evolution (and the telling of the evolution) of human consciousness.

The word first grabbed me fourteen years ago when I read it in Jung’s Answer to Job. I had begun the onerous task of writing an oratorio that would take its musical form from his book. I put the project away after repeated warnings from the I-Ching that I was headed for a great abyss if I continued (Hexagram 29). Before you think I’m some odd occultist who takes oracles literally…I don’t. At least in this case. Although there is a numinosity to it for some people, I use the I-Ching as a brainstorming partner. I don’t put faith in the literality of oracles, but I do find personal value and a sense of meaning through exploring the ideas surrounding/involving the totality of our inner world. (I.e. the conscious and unconscious images brought from our inner world into our outer physical world through the arts, psychology, mythology, and religion.) Answer to Job is a very dark book, written in a flurry by Jung in a feverish state (as the story goes) while suffering from kidney disease. It is his personal struggle with the dark side of the Christian God. Through brainstorming with the I-Ching, I decided there were enough struggles in my life at that moment and decided to put the oratorio away for a while. I recently started working on it again for a commission. So, once again, I’m in the midst of Jung, Job, the dark aspects of God…thinking about the experience of the numinous.

Being a former protestant minister, I use to dwell on the ideas taught to me defining specifically what the experience, and knowledge, of God was about. Then came the modern Gnostics into my life (Jung and Joseph Campbell) telling me I could experience the numinous on my own. Depending on which of my friends you talk to, my studies in Jung, Otto, Eliade, Campbell, James Hillman, and others, either led me astray from the path of orthodoxy or showed me the limitless possibilities and depth to be explored in human consciousness and its rich history. So what keeps, and has kept, people from experiencing and attempting to come to terms with the numinous? Why do we settle for spoon-fed dogmas, instead of exploring for ourselves? For those of religious conviction, Jung says, it might be the uncomfortable feeling of doubt that analyzing the numinous object of their faith could bring about. For the non-religious Jung says in Job, “…it is hardly possible to admit the numinosity of the religious object…” as the very numinosity could shake their non-belief.

What is it that kept me from exploring earlier in life? Why did I wait until my thirties to change paths? I don’t believe it was just fear. Distractions from the numinous surrounded me, and still surround all of us, drawing attention away from the contemplation of the inner world and its images, and making us blind and deaf to the numinous in the midst of our physical world. The beauty and power of this technological age also brings about a curse: a plurality of distractions from the numinous. And for me, there is a prevalent one that kept me from looking/reflecting on the numinous.

The Noise and The Numinous (September)

“The gods are personifications of the energies that inform life—the very energies that are building the trees and moving the animals and whipping up the waves of the oceans…Most traditions realize this—that deities are personifications, not facts. They are metaphors. They’re not references to anything you can put your finger on, your eye on…But in our religious training we are not put in a position to understand how the gods are seen in other religious traditions so we have lost this language of the spirit. We do not recognize the gods.”
—Joseph Campbell

Looking at the “gods” this way enables us to realize that they are everywhere, all around us and in us. Not physically literal anthropomorphic manifestations, but metaphors for the unknowable, unseeable, unhearable, untouchable. A relationship with these metaphors will keep us in contact with the numinous; conversely, if there is no conception/relation of the metaphor we are kept distant and removed from the numinous. My traditional religious training taught me about the literality of God, God as the great anthropomorphic Father geographically located in Heaven. But in that literality I lost the mystery, and in losing the mystery, I lost the honest first-person connection to the numinous. I did not recognize the gods. Here I was: I thought God would lead to knowledge, but gods don’t. Gods lead to mystery and the unknowable. Hades points to the underworld, Poseidon to the sea, Zeus to the skies…

The great mystics of all traditions had relationships with the gods and chose their metaphors to describe them from the cultural tableau available. Yet somehow we ended up in a culture that no longer supports mystics and their place in society. We are in need of a re-discovery and new relationship with metaphor on the cultural level as a whole. The re-discovery of metaphor and the numinous is difficult in this day and age. It actually takes effort, as activities around us seek to distract and divert our attention.

Driving through Los Angeles the other day I was once again struck by the bombardment of images related to everything external. Everywhere I looked: a billboard, a sign, a bumper sticker, a t-shirt, a hat, a bag, even in the sky a giant banner towed by a plane, all giving me messages about my external existence telling me what to wear, drink, eat, drive and where to be.

And noise pollution: the biggest distraction for me.

The sound of construction, the stereo in the car blasting bass beats, the over-caffeinated soccer moms at the coffee house loudly discussing their children’s successes, the NASCAR dads revving up their un-muffled motorcycles at the campsites, the screaming children in the grocery store, the barking dog in the parked car as I walk from the grocery story, the music inside every business, the music being piped outside the businesses, commercials and video being played loudly while in line at the grocery store, the constant hum of the freeway a mile away…

Are these simply distractions?

Or worse?

Today’s noise pollution could be an incarnation of the gods: the Sirens of Greek mythology…leading us to destruction on the rocks.

The search for a message-free line of sight and one free of unwanted auditory input go hand in hand with a search for the numinous, for a direct experience of the gods. Brother Lawrence may have been able to experience God in the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, in the washing of the dishes, but I believe for most of us focused, distraction-free time is needed.

My attempts to find silence began in earnest in the 80s. I found myself staying for a few weeks at a mountain monastery. The silence was at first restful, then uncomfortable. Then, in quiet contemplation, I was able to free myself from distractions, look at what I believed, and open myself to the numinous – outside of dogmatic classification. In finding silence, I experienced the numinous.

Do I write merely to complain about noise pollution? Is it just about being disturbed and annoyed? There is something insidious about noise pollution, the danger is greater than being disturbed and annoyed. Yes, I do get bothered when the yelling begins at the once peaceful coffeehouse as the banal become boisterous through caffeine. But the danger is in distraction. And distraction keeps us from seeking out and experiencing the numinous. When we experience the numinous, we begin self-reflection. And inner-growth can occur through the awareness self-reflection brings about. We begin thinking about our relationship to the earth and its populations outside of our immediate realm of perception, as well as those people in our immediate presence. We begin dealing with questions of mortality. Empathy begins. And empathy begets a change in the way we treat ourselves, others…everything and everyone. The experience of the numinous has led to, and could lead to greater, societal evolution. And while the experience of the numinous can happen anywhere, it seems to be most encouraged by stillness and silence. Which are sorely lacking in society today.

And it requires work on two levels: commitment to seeking distraction free space. And being one that doesn’t add to all the distractions…and that is difficult.