The current dawning of the Coronacene reframes and underscores an always-salient truth: Real success in writing is just doing it. Just inhabiting the act itself. Just seeing new words appear on the page. “The search for meaning distilled in an act . . . an act of meditation, an act of prayer . . . giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life,” as Adam O’Fallon Price lucidly and movingly puts it in an essay at The Millions:
Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case. . . .
Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.
We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.
Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.
More: “Our Work and Why We Do It“
Several thousand people have now downloaded my free e-book A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius (formerly available at Demon Muse, which I have now shut down because of repeated hacks and security breaches). There’s obviously a widespread interest in the idea, experience, and practice of what feels like inner creative communion and collaboration with a guiding muse, daimon, genius, Holy Guardian Angel, pick your metaphor. My personal intuition tells me the whole subject is bound up with the zeitgeist itself, as anybody who has followed this blog for very long will already know.
Something I didn’t talk about in the e-book, but that I’ll probably mention in its possible future reincarnation as a thoroughly expanded and revised version of itself, is the rich and deeply significant connection between this subject and the I Ching. If you’re unfamiliar or only distantly familiar with this classic, civilization-shaping Chinese book of divination and cosmic wisdom, then please hear me when I say that you’re well-advised to become better acquainted with it, because the discipline of learning to consult, interpret, and apply the I Ching to your life, psyche, and circumstances can complement and intensify the Western view of the daimon muse with a powerful alternate inflection. Read the rest of this entry
“It’s absolutely necessary that we let go of ourselves, and it can’t be done, not by anything that we call ‘doing it’ — acting, willing, or even just accepting things. . . . When you look out of your eyes at nature happening ‘out there,’ you’re looking at you. That’s the real you, the you that goes on of itself. . . . You’re breathing. The wind is blowing. The trees are waving. Your nerves are tingling.” — Alan Watts
(For all you who are wondering: Yes, this fairly sublime little music-and-video setting of some wonderful words by dear old Alan comes to us courtesy of John Boswell, the same man behind the Symphony of Science project.)
From an excellent new profile of Alan Moore in The Observer, focusing mainly on his rejection of Hollywood but spinning out into various and sundry areas of deep fascinatingness (as befitting his fascinatingly deep and varied person), a statement regarding the deep intertwinement of magic, consciousness, creativity, and writing:
This business of being a practising magician, which he first announced in the 1990s (about the time his beard started to grey, and he got the snake-shaped stick). Is it for real, or is he playing? “It’s a major part of how I see the world. Looking like I do, halfway to Gandalf before I’ve put a foot out the door, you’ve got to diffuse… ” And for once, Moore fails to find an eloquent end to his sentence. He tries again: “There is an element of playing. But what’s behind it is very serious.”
Pick a card, any card? No, says Moore, it’s not about tricks. To him it’s about consciousness — and quickly he gets away on a tangent about the limits of the mind, flitting through Freud, Alan Turing, Paracelsus and Twelfth Night before arriving at an explanation that makes reasonable sense. Moore sees magic as a form of meditation, an outlet for his seriously vivid imagination.
“Do I believe, for example, that by using magic I could fly? No. How would you get around gravity? Impossible. Do I believe that I might be able to project my consciousness into a very, very vivid simulation of flying? Yeah. Yes, I’ve done that. Yes, that works.”
Does it require that you take… “Sometimes you have to take drugs, yes. Sometimes you can do it with dreaming. Sometimes you can do it with a creative act. Writing is a very focused form of meditation. Just as good as sitting in a lotus position.”
— Tom Lamont, “Alan Moore: why I turned my back on Hollywood,” The Observer, December 15, 2012
For more on the same or a similar theme, see my A Course in Demonic Creativity, especially chapter three, “A Writer’s Guide to the Psyche” and chapter eight, “The Discipline of the Demon Muse.” For more on Moore, see my long essay “In Search of Higher Intelligence,” which is mainly about the deeply entangled experiences of Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson with these matters, but which also mentions Moore’s experiences and contributions (as well as those of his fellow author/magician/comics auteur, Grant Morrison). You can also find the same essay in slightly revised form, sans the Moore and Morrison references, in the October 2012 issue of Paranthropology.
Image by Matt Biddulph (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mbiddulph/3590341986/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The ancient Tibetan metaphysical texts state that all sound is music, all music is mantra, and mantra is the essence of all sound. Through the use of ritual and mantric power, the Tibetans use sound to effect a specific change in the individual and the environment.
Mantra is a pattern of sound or sound vibration that is based upon primordial sound structures. By their sheer inherent potency and disciplined execution, these concentrated essential energies bring about direct spiritual phenomenon.
— From the liner notes for Cho-ga, Tantric & Ritual Music of Tibet (Teldec, 1974, LP)
When I was in college I worked at a small music store, often doing 10-hour days with no managerial supervision. This meant that for four years I was privy to an intense engagement with a wide range of music on a daily basis, including everything from Edith Piaf to Throbbing Gristle, and some of the more obscure pleasures in between. Faced with my own predilections, as well as those of the regular customers, I became interested in deleting my preferences, or more importantly, my distaste for certain types of music.
When you work in an environment like that, it’s easy to become a smug connoisseur. While I won’t claim to have avoided that arrogance altogether, I did pursue a program to erase my preferences by using some of the insights I gained from my academic focus on ritual and cognitive philosophy. After four years’ worth of 10-hour shifts, if you’re too picky about what you listen to, you’ll quickly go insane or become a raging asshole.
Each day while driving to work or school, I would randomly choose a radio station by spinning the dial and letting it land wherever it wanted. Then I would enjoy whatever music I encountered. I would enjoy it even if I hated it, and during commercials, because I was brainwashing myself and wasn’t interested in letting others brainwash me, I would turn the dial between stations and listen to white noise. White noise also replaced the station if I landed on talk radio during the random spin. Again, I was interested in brainwashing myself, not letting others do it to me, and this experiment was not about learning to enjoy propaganda but opening up my musical preferences.
When I described the experiment to my collegiate advisor, he warned me that I was playing with fire and could end up erasing preferences that were crucial for having a self-identity in society. However, I knew that initiation, even self-initiation, is a dance with a purifying flame, so I ignored all warnings and continued on.
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De Umbris Idearum: the shadows of ideas. Giordano Bruno used this as the title of one of his treatises on the art of memory. As thematic inspiration for this weekly column, the notion of shadows is taken for its most expansive potential. Everything we encounter in the environment is in some way a shadow of an idea, whether in nature, where our interpretation of what we encounter is predicated on a complex assemblage of conceptual precedents, or in the social world of artifice, where everything from our cell phones to the buildings we live in are in some ways the physical shadows of someone’s idea.
Meditation and contemplative practice, in many traditions, are tools for overcoming some of the inherent problems that come from dealing in shadows. Think of yourself on a darkened street. You see a tall figure moving towards you from an alleyway. Unsure of whether facing friend or foe, the mind immediately moves to react in the way best suited for survival. If friend, the shadow will be no threat, but if enemy, then without the proper attention, we could face injury or death. It makes sense, then, to react immediately in defense rather than taking a chance on becoming a victim. But this is nevertheless a very taxing way to go about things. What if one could more clearly judge potential threats or potential benefactors? In the material realm, this is a key to the practice of martial arts. In the mental and spiritual realm, this is the key to the practice of philosophy.
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This morning, not long after sitting for 20 minutes or so of meditation, while I was drinking my coffee and checking my news feeds, I came across a headline announcing “US gives Iran ‘last chance’ warning over shutting down nuclear facility.” Right after that I saw a separate one announcing that “Russia Is Massing Troops on Iran’s Northern Border and Waiting for a Western Attack.” Naturally, this worked in tandem with the coffee to wake me up. Read the rest of this entry
I’m tempted to exclaim, “Take that, medical-industrial complex! ” On the heels of a recent Atlantic article about the growing mainstream acceptance of “New Age” or alternative medical treatments comes one from The Wall Street Journal about the verifiable benefits of meditation, cognitive therapy, and other psychological interventions for chronic pain. The establishment, naturally, is quaking in its boots, especially since this trend is both arising from and contributing to the underscoring and highlighting of its fundamentally flawed (and evil) system that financially incentivizes “productivity” at the expense of authentic patient care.
Of course, my thoughts and feelings are strongly impacted by the many years I’ve spent in deep personal involvement with somebody who suffers from chronic health problems, including chronic pain, and who has been helped more by alternative treatment methods and modalities than mainstream ones. These methods and modalities are generally branded “quackery” by the mainstream medical mindset — even though several years of intensive treatments of the mainstream variety not only utterly failed to help but actively exacerbated the problems.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the dawning new age of American medicine is part and parcel of the gathering cultural-philosophical-scientific tide that promises to deal a death blow to physicalism, materialism, and scientism. Bob Dylan was right. The times, they are a-changin’.
“The Triumph of New Age Medicine” — David H. Freedman, The Atlantic, July/August 2011
Medicine has long decried acupuncture, homeopathy, and the like as dangerous nonsense that preys on the gullible. Again and again, carefully controlled studies have shown alternative medicine to work no better than a placebo. But now many doctors admit that alternative medicine often seems to do a better job of making patients well, and at a much lower cost, than mainstream care — and they’re trying to learn from it.
[…] Every single physician I spoke with agreed: the current system makes it nearly impossible for most doctors to have the sort of relationship with patients that would best promote health. The biggest culprit, they say, is the way doctors are reimbursed. “Doctors are paid for providing treatments, not for spending time talking to patients,” says Victor Montori, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. A medical system that successfully guided patients toward healthier lifestyles would almost certainly see its cash flow diminish dramatically. “Last year, 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion the U.S. spent on health care was for treating chronic diseases that, to a large degree, can be prevented or reversed through lifestyle change,” says Dean Ornish of UCSF. Who (besides patients) has an incentive to make changes that would remove that money from the system?
[…] [A] more open-minded consideration of alternative-medicine practices has become par for the course at medical schools. In recent years, the American Medical Student Association has co-sponsored an annual International Integrative Medicine Day, which, according to this year’s press release, “will increase awareness and availability of integrative medicine, promote inter-professional collaboration, encourage self-care, foster cultural awareness and enhance patient-physician communication” (an “infiltration of quackademic medicine,” blogged David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at Wayne State University and one of the more prickly anti-alternative-medicine warriors, in despair).
“Thinking Away the Pain” — Jonah Lehrer, The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011
Despite the increasing prevalence of chronic pain — nearly one in three Americans suffers from it — medical progress has been slow and halting. This is an epidemic we don’t know how to treat. For the most part, doctors still rely on over-the-counter medications and opioid drugs, such as OxyContin and Vicodin. While opioids can provide effective relief, they’re also prone to abuse, which is why overdoses from prescription painkillers are now a leading cause of accidental death.
But there are glimmers of progress in the war against pain. New therapeutic approaches don’t target body parts or nerves close to the source of the problem. They don’t involve highly technical surgeries or expensive new drugs. Instead, they focus on the mind, on altering the ways in which we perceive the pain itself.
[…]A brain scanner showed how the intervention worked. Learning to meditate altered brain activity in the very same regions, such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex, that are targeted by next-generation pain medications. It’s as if the subjects were administering their own painkillers.
[…]But meditation isn’t the only mind-based approach that has gotten impressive results. Researchers at Duke University recently looked at a wide variety of psychological interventions for chronic lower back pain, including cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback and hypnosis. In almost every case, these treatments proved effective, leading to improved health outcomes at a fraction of the cost of conventional medical approaches.
The larger lesson is that, for far too long, we’ve been treating pain as a purely physical problem, a sensation rooted in the breakdown of the flesh. As a result, we’ve invested in costly and often ineffective surgeries, such as spinal fusion, that attempt to fix the mechanical failure.
But this approach oversimplifies an extremely complex condition. It’s now clear that pain is best understood as a mental state concerning the body, an objective sensation terribly twisted by the brain. And that’s why these psychological interventions sometimes work better than scalpels: They help us to untwist our thoughts.
Photo credit: Nina Aldin Thune [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
What an interesting cultural moment it is for somebody like me, who holds an obsessive interest in religion, horror, and the interface between them.
For example, it’s widely recognized that zombies have become the monsters of the moment in contemporary horror entertainment. Zombie-themed movies have been flooding movie theatres for the past five or six years, ranging in quality from the low (e.g., 2003’s House of the Dead, based on the popular video game) to the middling (e.g., other video game adaptations such as 2005’s Doom and 2002’s Resident Evil) to the high (e.g., 2002’s 28 Days Later, directed by indie fave Danny Boyle of Trainspotting fame). Last year, legendary film director George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the long-awaited fourth installment in his classic Living Dead series, finally arrived in theatres after a wait of 20 years. Zombie-themed novels are filling bookstore shelves at a staggering pace, such as Brian Keene’s The Rising and City of the Dead, Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and many, many more. Sequels to many of the newer zombie movies have already happened (2004’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse) or are on the way (28 Weeks Later, scheduled for 2007).
This whole phenomenon absolutely fascinates me, since zombies are positively ripe (no pun intended) with the kind of religious-horrific crossover significance that I’m always looking for. I’ve been an avid student of the zombie subgenre for a great many years now. Romero’s movies blew me away when I was in my teens, during which period I also discovered the zombie films of Lucio Fulci and others. Years later, when I got into graduate school my religious studies professors generously allowed me to explore my horror-oriented interests within the confines of their discipline, and I turned to the zombie theme for one of the two seminar papers I wrote in completion of my M.A. The title was “Loathsome Objects: George Romero’s Living Dead Films as Contemplative Tools.” My thesis was that the rich trove of apocalyptic religious elements presented in Romero’s zombie movies (which at the time, ca. 2003, formed a trilogy instead of today’s quadrilogy), acting in tandem with their through-the-roof presentation of explicit violence and gore, renders them amenable to a contemplative reading in which they serve as spurs to an experience of spiritual transcendence, somewhat along the line of the famous — or obscure, or notorious (take your pick) — practice of meditating on rotten corpses that has been recommended by some historical Buddhist sects in the interest of awakening the meditator to a vivid recognition of the truth of impermanence and the reality of personal emptiness.
So in light of all that, you can imagine how interested I was to learn recently of the publication of a new book titled Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, written by religious studies professor Kim Paffenroth and published by Baylor University Press. The publisher’s description reads as follows: “This volume connects American social and religious views with the classic American movie genre of the zombie horror film. For nearly forty years, the films of George A. Romero have presented viewers with hellish visions of our world overrun by flesh-eating ghouls. This study proves that Romero’s films, like apocalyptic literature or Dante’s Commedia, go beyond the surface experience of repulsion to probe deeper questions of human nature and purpose, often giving a chilling and darkly humorous critique of modern, secular America.”
Hello! This is precisely the sort of thing that makes me sit up and take notice. A little judicious poking around online reveals that the book is achieving considerable notoriety. Reviews abound all over the web. Recommendations for the Bram Stoker Award are piling up. And in the course of scoping it out, I’ve stumbled across a number of other recent, pertinent events and items in the same vein, such as a paper by Paul Teusner, written in completion of a Master of Theology degree, titled “Resident Evil: Horror Film and the Construction of Religious Identity in Contemporary Media Culture.” Certainly, scholarly studies that offer a combined focus on religion, horror, and pop culture aren’t new; consider Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King (1996) by Edward J. Ingebretsen, S.J., or Devouring Whirlwind: Terror and Transcendence in the Cinema of Cruelty (1988) by Will Rockett, to name just two worthy examples. But it seems to me that the new trend in such scholarship is to include items, and even to focus upon them centrally, that were formerly considered to be nothing more than pop cultural detritus. Yes, in larger scope this is probably an aspect of the same trend that has led many academic and cultural watchdogs in recent decades to lament the devolution of academic scholarship proper into a kind of degraded freakshow that operates under the influence of a kind of post-modernist frenzied urge to smash the ivory towers and swamp taste and high culture in a sea of trash. But it’s also possible to view this trend, or at least certain aspects of it, in terms of “scholarship on the ground,” as it were: scholarship that seeks to get at the heart of what really makes a culture tick, in terms of the concrete lived experience of being a participant in it.
When I turn my attention in this direction, significant seeming factors begin to pile up faster than I can note them. For example, my friend Maurice Broaddus is pastor, or rather “facilitator,” of a large urban church. He is also a published horror writer who is very aware of the interesting interactions between these facets of his life. Brian Keene, the aforementioned author of several best-selling zombie novels, spoke about his personal religious journey at an event held earlier this year at Maurice’s church in Indianapolis. Turning from literary matters to cinematic ones, Scott Derrickson has become a prominent Christian director of horror films in Hollywood. His resume includes Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and, as I myself reported on this blog a few months ago, a forthcoming adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. As with Maurice, Brian, and others who are working this very interesting patch of earth, Derrickson is very self-aware of the interplay between his twin foci on religion and artistic horror, as witnessed by the reflective things he has said in various interviews.
The upshot of all my scattered comments and observations here is this: I’m thinking that the conjunction of religion and horror — with the second understood as both an existential experience and an important subset of media/popular culture studies — is an Idea Whose Time Has Come. I have been personally interested in it since earliest childhood and adolescence. I devoted eight years of graduate study to pursuing it along various lines. Currently I’m co-editing an anthology of horror stories to be titled Holy Horrors. So I’m certainly doing my part to turn the earth, and it’s quite gratifying to see the subject rapidly becoming a major focus of attention in the present academic and cultural climate. Gratifying enough, it seems, for me to devote a rambling blog post to it.
Not incidentally, I’m happy to report that I’ve talked with Kim Paffenroth, and he has secured a review copy of Gospel of the Living Dead to send my way. So I’ll definitely be writing more about this book when I’ve had a chance to read it. And I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open for more evidence of what promises to be a long-lived trend — this widespread academic and cultural focus on religion and horror in tandem — that is only just beginning to blossom.