Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Whose seeds of death-in-life are burnt

Allegory of Death, Maximilián Pirner, after 1886

He who wanders without a home in this world, leaving behind the desires of this world, and the desires never return - him I call a Brahmin.

He who wanders without a home in this world, leaving behind the feverish thirst for the world, and the fever never returns - him I call a Brahmin.

He who is free from the bondage of men and also from the bondage of the gods: who is free from all things in creation - him I call a Brahmin. 

He who is free from pleasure and pain, who is calm, and whose seeds of death-in-life are burnt, whose heroism has conquered all the inner worlds - him I call a Brahmin.

The Dhammapada, Chapter 26, 415-418 - The Brahmin.
Mascaro translation.

I moved my lips -the Pilot shrieked 
And fell down in a fit; 
The holy Hermit raised his eyes, 
And prayed where he did sit. 

I took the oars: the Pilot’s boy, 
Who now doth crazy go, 
Laughed loud and long, and all the while 
His eyes went to and fro. 
`Ha! ha!’ quoth he, `full plain I see, 
The Devil knows how to row.’ 

And now, all in my own country, 
I stood on the firm land! 
The Hermit stepped forth from the boat, 
And scarcely he could stand. 

 O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man! 
The Hermit crossed his brow. 
`Say quick,’ quoth he `I bid thee say - 
What manner of man art thou?’ 

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched 
With a woeful agony, 
Which forced me to begin my tale; 
And then it left me free. 

Since then, at an uncertain hour, 
That agony returns; 
And till my ghastly tale is told, 
This heart within me burns. 

I pass, like night, from land to land; 
I have strange power of speech; 
That moment that his face I see, 
I know the man that must hear me: 
To him my tale I teach.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Ancient Mariner, Part VII

SCRAPINGS: Notes for an essay

Language is an unfolding riddle. Cadmus sowing the hieroglyphs of the Dragon's Teeth to bring forth  the armed Phoenician men of the Alphabet. Atomic elements of language, energies spun down into phonemes and morphemes: Indo-European mysteries. The Spirit is thus crucified upon the skeleton of the Flesh. The Incarnation of Inspiration. The imprisonment of God's Holy Fire, enthousiazein, into the charnel house of the body. The bondage of Yeats, all of us sailing to Byzantium. Afterwards, literally, the seductions of Time: the relentless habituations and myriad desensitizations of the brain. The key as Eliot's confirmation of the prison in the Waste Land. Every sentence, emotional, literal and judicial, as a Zen koan to be "thought beyond." Law in this world, Justice in the next. A ladder from the Tarot leading up to a cloud. And even if it all is an epiphenomenal joke, a Ghost dreaming of Electric Sheep in the bedrooms of the Machine, there is still the haunting Presence of a Transcendental Ground. Some dark future. A gossamer thread of Hope.

Hope, George Frederic Watts, 1886

At the Tate National Gallery. An allegorical painting by George Frederic Watts: Hope. The blindfolded female figure atop a somber globe, bent down listening to the music of the one remaining string. Gossamer thread. As if the artist has access to my inmost soul. Ecce:

George Frederic Watts, Can These Bones Live? 1897-8


In 1950s Olds and Milner et al. demonstrated that a rat will press a bar in a Skinner box to electrically stimulate "pleasure centers," nucleus accumbens, until they die from exhaustion, forgoing any previous rewards based on food, comfort or even sex with another rat.

When the electrodes were wired so that the rats could stimulate their own brain by pressing a lever, Olds and Milner discovered that they did so almost obsessively—some more than 1,000 times an hour.1
The control exercised over the animal’s behavior by means of this reward is extreme, possibly exceeding that exercised by any other reward previously used in animal experimentation.2

Wanting and Liking

One patient—a 24-year-old homosexual whom Heath was attempting to cure of depression (and of his desire for other men)—was compelled to stimulate his electrodes some 1,500 times over the course of a single, three-hour session. According to Heath, this obsessive self-stimulation gave the subject, patient B-19, “feelings of pleasure, alertness, and warmth (goodwill).” The end of his session was met with vigorous protest.3

From Aristotle to contemporary positive psychology, well-being or happiness has been usefully proposed to consist of at least two ingredients: hedonia and eudaimonia (Aristotle 2009; Seligman et al. 2005). While definitions of these by philosophers and psychologists have varied, most generally agree that hedonia at least corresponds psychologically to a state of pleasure. Thus a particularly important topic for hedonic psychology and affective neuroscience is to understand how pleasure is generated by brain mechanisms so as to contribute to well-being. Fortunately, deciphering hedonia in the brain is a task in which considerable progress has already been made. Eudaimonia by comparison may be more difficult to define philosophically or approach scientifically, but most agree it corresponds to some cognitive and/or moral aspect of a life lived well and not to any mere emotional feeling. We view eudaimonia to mean essentially a life experienced as valuably meaningful and as engaging. Thus, for psychological neuroscience of the future another major goal will be to uncover how such experiences are reflected in patterns of brain activity (Urry et al. 2004).4


Among us English-speaking peoples especially do the praises of poverty need once more to be boldly sung. We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise anyone who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have, the right to fling away our life at any moment irresponsibly—the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape. When we of the so-called better classes are scared as men were never scared in history at material ugliness and hardship; when we put off marriage until our house can be artistic, and quake at the thought of having a child without a bank-account and doomed to manual labour, it is time for thinking men to protest against so unmanly and irreligious a state of opinion. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1900