We’ve been only best friends — really, brothers — since kindergarten, back in the year 1970. The Beatles were still an active group. The Vietnam war was still raging. We have known each other completely for over half a century by now!
Now, keeping it simple as we trade life experiences and the many breakthroughs each has enabled the other to have as a result of the friendship.
John is the first human being who I heard mention the word “Dharma“. He is the first human being who I heard speak of the Buddha. Therefore, you could maybe say that he was my first “sangha”, in a protozoic way. He was the first touchstone for me in this life to enter the path of Darma.
Centuries ago, when Descartes and La Mettrie were forming their views about the relations between life and the mind, it was not the hard to problem [of consciousness] that was at issue, but the existence – – or non-existence – – of the “Soul“. And – – perhaps surprisingly – – there are echoes of the soul to be found in the beast machine story too. This soul is not an immaterial quiddity, nor a spiritual distillation of rationality. The beast machine view of selfhood, with its intimate ties to the body, to the persistent rhythms of the living, returns us to a place liberated from concepts of a computational mind, before Cartesian divisions of mind and matter, reason and non-reason. What we might call the “soul“ in this view is the perceptual expression of a deep continuity between mind and life. It is the experience we have when we encounter the deepest levels of embodied self-worth – – these inchoate feelings of “just being“ – – as really existing. It seems right to call this an echo of the soul because it revives even more ancient conceptions of this eternal notion, conceptions – – such as the Ātman in Hinduism – – which contemplated our innermost essence more as breath than as thought.
We are not cognitive computers, we are feeling machines.
In the same way that “redness“ is the subjective aspect of brain-based predictions about how some surfaces reflect light, emotions and moods or the subjective aspects of predictions about the causes of interoceptive signals. They are internally driven forms of controlled hallucination. […] The final, and crucial, step in the beast machine theory is to recognize that from this starting point, everything else follows. We are not the best machines of Descartes, for whom life was irrelevant to mind. It is exactly the opposite. ALL of our perceptions and experiences, whether of the self or of the world, ALL are inside-out controlled and controlling hallucinations that are rooted in the flesh-and-blood predictive machinery that evolved, develops, and operates from moment to moment always in light of a fundamental biological drive to stay alive.
We are conscious beast machines, through and through
Will spend some time today finally finishing this enormously interesting text. The unfolding of history in real time — in the unspeakably barbaric war in Ukraine and its foreboding geopolitical tectonic shifts trending negative all along down the line — has grabbed my attention for too long.
It’s time to return to consideration of these matters, while not forgetting anything I can do to help the Ukrainians.
Got a good drive around these beautiful campuses, these seats of pure learning. It has been such a gift to reconnect with New England on this visit. So much of my childhood happened in New England, albeit a strange part of it — beaches and tennis courts on Cape Cod. But I was educated some years here, and then led a working-life while saving up money to attend long retreats in Korea. But we digress.
It has just been nice, on this visit, to enjoy some simple rides about this rolling New England movie set, these pre-Revolutionary War houses still standing (and so many freshly painted and well-maintained). The house of Emily Dickinson is just a few hundred meters up the road here: I’ve passed it several times already. It’s hallowed ground, these parts. Until now, my New England had been limited to Cape Cod, Boston/Cambridge, a retreat center near Shutesbury where the KAPOW happened, and some visits years back to a girlfriend’s home in deep-woodsy Vermont. But I never touched one of these old seats of learning.
But this little brain spot out in Amherst, alchemized in the brain-space created by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the explosion of pure philosophy and science and natural law, fermented out of here, in these five colleges I have only briefly heard of, out in these rolling farms, amidst this pastoral sanity, is a blessing to experience, however cursorily. This holy region of territory, this Concord-to-New York shaft of earth, produced and inflamed the ethical revulsion at the institution of slavery. These institutions (and like-minded Ivies) maintained the flame of outrage that gave moral opposition to the war in Vietnam and the subjugation of Blacks. It really feels like a pilgrimage to drive through the old green (“the Commons”) and see the old houses situated just so, and the neatly laid out streets shorn of decoration or show. I also notice the distinct lack of racial diversity, save in the coffee shop where we stop for croissants and some java. It is powerful to experience such a mammoth state school, to feel its force and its resources, nestled chock-a-block practically with these quieter, more curated colleges modelled more on the ancient lyceum than some science-driven state project. The difference in mentalities between the two types of institutions was jarring.
Emily Dickinson the energy-vortex: Staying for several days some 600 meters from the house where Emily Dickinson closeted herself until the end of her life, I am rediscovering her Soul and came across this contemporaneous description of her “energy”: the quality of consciousness that animated her terse cosmic worlds. It is the most detailed and vivid physical account of Dickinson on record (Wikipedia):
When Higginson urged [Emily Dickinson] to come to Boston in 1868 so they could formally meet for the first time, she declined, writing: "Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town". It was not until he came to Amherst in 1870 that they met. Later he referred to her, in the most detailed and vivid physical account of her on record, as "a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair ... in a very plain & exquisitely clean white piqué & a blue net worsted shawl". He also felt that he never was "with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."
Only such a one could pen this: “Real”.
And here is the full account of their meeting, as told in a recent Atlantic article:
First he heard her. From upstairs on the second floor came the sound of quick, light steps—footsteps that sounded like a child’s. Then she entered. A plain woman with two bands of reddish hair, not particularly good-looking, wearing a white piqué dress. The white stunned him. It was exquisite. A blue worsted shawl covered her shoulders. She seemed fearful to him, breathless at first, and extended her hand—not to shake, but to offer something. “These are my introduction,” she said, handing him two daylilies. “Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers & hardly know what I say.” Then Dickinson looked at him. A tall man in his mid-40s with a joyful face, she thought. Dark-haired, whiskered, graceful, he looked kind. Higginson did not reach into his pocket to fish out a topic for conversation. He did not need to.
Once they sat, Dickinson began talking and she did not stop. When she experienced eye problems several years before, she told him, “it was a comfort to think that there were so few real books that I could easily find some one to read me all of them.” She wondered how people got through their days without thinking. “How do most people live without any thoughts,” she said. “There are many people in the world (you must have noticed them in the street) How do they live. How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning.” She was full of aphorisms, sentences that seemed to have been crafted earlier in her mind and that she wanted to share. “Women talk: men are silent: that is why I dread women; Truth is such a rare thing it is delightful to tell it; Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?”
At times, Dickinson seemed self-conscious and asked Higginson to jump in. But every time he tried, she was off again, and words tumbled out, almost uncontrollably. He tried to recall every phrase, every thought, even her tone, humor, and asides. “My father only reads on Sunday—he reads lonely & rigorous books,” she said. Once, she recalled, her brother, Austin, brought home a novel that they knew their father would not condone. Austin hid it under the piano cover for Dickinson to find. When she was young, she said, and read her first real book, she was in ecstasy. “This then is a book!” she had exclaimed. “And are there more of them!” She boasted about her cooking and said she made all the bread for the family. Puddings too. “People must have puddings,” she said. The way she said it—so dreamy and abstracted—sounded to Higginson as though she were talking about comets.
Dickinson said her life had not been constrained or dreary in any way. “I find ecstasy in living,” she explained. The “mere sense of living is joy enough.” When at last the opportunity arose, Higginson posed the question he most wanted to ask: Did you ever want a job, have a desire to travel or see people? The question unleashed a forceful reply. “I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time.” Then she loaded on more. “I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough.” Dickinson reserved her most striking statement for what poetry meant to her, or, rather, how it made her feel. “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know that is poetry,” she said. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way.” Dickinson was remarkable. Brilliant. Candid. Deliberate. Mystifying. After eight years of waiting, Higginson was finally sitting across from Emily Dickinson of Amherst, and all he wanted to do was listen.
It struck Higginson that the time he spent with Dickinson that day had been an act of self-definition for her: Her torrent of words was like a personal and literary manifesto. She reminded him of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father—although Dickinson was not pompous or overbearing. Before he rose to leave, Dickinson placed a photograph in his hand. It was an image of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s grave, a memento a friend had brought back from Europe and presented to her a few days before. He accepted the gift reluctantly, knowing that it probably meant more to her than it would to him. Like with the daylilies from earlier, he knew the photograph was Dickinson’s way of saying thank you. “Gratitude is the only secret that cannot reveal itself,” she told him. Higginson said he hoped to see her again sometime, and she abruptly interrupted him. “Say in a long time,” she corrected, “that will be nearer. Some time is nothing.”
With a hundred thoughts whirling in his head, Higginson retraced his steps back to the hotel. He needed to go to bed. But before turning in, he compiled notes, trying to recall it all, and made a quick entry in his diary. Meeting Emily Dickinson quite equaled my expectation, he wrote. It had been a momentous day, one he would never forget. As he turned down the lamp, he hoped he would be able to calm his mind and get to sleep. He wanted to wake up early before catching the train to Vermont.
For Dickinson, Higginson’s visit felt unreal, as if a phantom had entered the family parlor and transformed it. “Contained in this short Life / Are magical extents,” she wrote. She felt elated, emboldened, and slightly off-kilter. Hearing herself talk so much, she said, made her feel as though the words rushing out were not sentences at all, but events. After the visit, Dickinson reached for the family Shakespeare and turned to Macbeth. “Now a wood / Comes toward Dunsinane,” she read, reliving how mystical her friend’s visit had been.
Jostling along on the tracks to Vermont, miles from Amherst, Higginson noted down that Dickinson had dazzled him, but had also made him uncomfortable. It took every ounce of his being to meet her level of intellectual intensity. “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much,” he admitted. “Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”