Waiting for Gestalt

Waiting for Gestalt

By Gene Wilburn

Gestalt (ge STALT). A word meaning, roughly, when the brain perceives with clarity that the whole of a system is greater than the sum of its parts, and everything clicks into one awareness. One can have a gestalten moment. But can one achieve a gestalten existence?

When I was coming of age intellectually at university in the early to mid 1960s, there were a number of explorations of the mind making the rounds. Existentialism, the sometimes bleak philosophy that arose strongly in Paris after the Nazi occupation at the end of World War II, was alive and well. Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus were still publishing and there was something compelling in the message that you’re responsible for who you become, creating a personal integrity in the face of the meaninglessness and absurdity of the universe. This is, of course, an over simplification.

Along with the primary existential philosophers came “Theatre of the Absurd,” a literary form of existentialism, perhaps best seen in the play by Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, in which “logical construction and argument give way to irrational and illogical speech and its ultimate conclusion, silence.” [Wikipedia, “Theatre of the Absurd”]

Another prevailing line of thought came from the field of psychology, in the form of Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” with “self actualization” at the top of the pyramid. In its wake people were self actualizing all over the place, or at least that’s what they professed. It certainly launched a full-blown pop psychology business and fuelled New-Age-style thinking before “New Age” had even become a word.

A different branch of psychology, from Germany, had earlier in the century introduced Gestalt Theory, a holistic psychology that seemed to imply that if you could attain a gestalt with yourself and your environment, you could flow through it with understanding, and perhaps appreciation, in the way that listening to a symphony is an experience that transcends the individual notes of the musical score.

Looking back on this fifty years later, I think existentialism has held up rather well, especially when augmented with a generous helping of late Roman-style stoicism. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs still has a sound feel to it, though there is a sense that Western society, as a whole, has slipped down the pyramid a bit in this era of anti-enlightenment, anti-science populism.

But the one that still teases my mind is gestalt theory. At the turning of each decade I’ve been waiting for that gestalten moment when everything would click into place and I would reach an understanding — “Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mister Jones?” [Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”]

The problem is, how does one achieve gestalt when everything keeps changing?

The Impact of the 1960s

I emerged from the 1950s like most boys who had reached their teens by the start of the 1960s, interested in cars, playing basketball, grooving to the week’s Top–10 radio, and thinking about going to university after high school. In other words, I was as cookie-cutter naive as one could be.

It was the folk music era which, in my relative isolation, I took to be the music of the Kingston Trio, Limelighters, Chad Mitchell Trio, Burl Ives, and that new group on the radio, Peter Paul and Mary. It was when I heard Joan Baez sing a couple of old ballads like “Barbara Allen” I began to perceive a different kind of folk music that was less slick and more personal. Back then it was just music I liked. Later it would change me.

My intellectual life began when I went to university where I first majored in engineering. It was a tough study, but I was getting by, being moderately good at math and logic. There was, however, a problem. I enjoyed learning folk music more than studying STEM subjects and the lyrics of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs left me questioning what I was doing. I bought a guitar, learned a fistful of chords, and learned to sing and play the songs that were haunting me.

My taste in folk music had also led me to discover the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and a rich vein of black blues singers from Big Bill Broonzy and the Rev. Gary Davis to Mississippi John Hurt. I loved all these voices of the people.

I couldn’t square my study of engineering with my awareness of what was happening. The civil rights movement in the American South highlighted the inappropriate treatment of black people. President Kennedy had been assassinated, then Martin Luther King, then Robert Kennedy. There was a strange, unpopular war being waged in Vietnam.

Things were changing, blowing in the wind, as it were, and the gestalt of the time was changing with it. I switched my major to English and my minor to French, and began studying literature with its plays, novels, poems, and essays. In French classes, we frequently read the existentialists Sartre and Camus. I studied philosophy, social history, and art history. I met and became friends with dozens of like-minded individuals, some male, some female, some straight, some gay, a few who were black or hispanic, all of whom shared a passion for literature, art, philosophy, and music. I had found my people.

Something happens to your mind when you embrace the Humanities — something that comes as a series of epiphanies that raises your consciousness into new realms of thought and feeling resulting from contact with the great writers, poets, playwrights, philosophers, artists, and musicians of all eras. It’s intoxicating and exhilarating and, as Thomas Wolfe proclaimed in the title of his novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. You’re changed.

You reach for a higher kind of gestalt, the gestalt of the modestly well-educated. You begin to read the New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, The Times (London), The Guardian, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, The Globe and Mail, and university quarterlies. You listen to folk music, cool jazz, classical music, and opera. You see Verdi in the same tradition as Shakespeare, and taste the richness of Old English in Beowulf and the delightful Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer.

It’s a heady experience, all in all, but the question always arises: what are you going to do with all this when you head out into the “real” world?

One Pill Makes You Larger, and One Pill Makes You Small

For one gestalten period it seemed as if the world had changed. The war in Vietnam was vigorously opposed, campus radicalism was on the rise, and hair got longer. The folk music I’d grown up with was woven into a new kind of rock music and the voices of Joni Mitchell, Grace Slick, Janis Joplin, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young filled the airwaves, along with new bands like the Doors, Led Zeppelin, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Frank Zappa.

Alan Watts taught us about Zen, the tarot deck came back into fashion, and decorated VW vans filled with flower children with headbands, victory signs, peace medallions, and bloodshot eyes were common sights.

Among the reading favourites were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Catch–22, The Vedas and The Upanishads, The Teachings of Don Juan, The I Ching and The Whole Earth Catalog.

Everyone was for “getting back to nature” and many communes were started, mostly ending in failure, and from the broadway musical Hair to massive rock concerts, it was assumed that the Age of Aquarius was upon us. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz described it as an “explosion of consciousness.”

It’s sometimes said that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there. My own memory of the time is patchy, with psychedelically-coloured gaps and an enduring sense of mysticism. But, like many, I didn’t see how it was sustainable. In the words of the Jefferson Airplane, “You are the Crown of Creation / And you have no place to go.”

The Origin of Species

The flower-power era couldn’t last, of course, because someone has to pay the bills. I trimmed my hair, picked up a degree in library science, and took a job. Through sheer good fortune I ended up as Head Librarian at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto. It was there that I began hanging out with ornithologists, palaeontologists, mammalogists, geologists, mineralogists, ichthyologists, and entomologists, as well as archaeologists. It has shaped my thinking to this day. I had encountered the gestalt of scientific thinking and research.

One of the curators, a palynologist (one who studies modern and ancient pollens) challenged me with the question: “Have you read Darwin’s Origin of Species?” Being a lit major, I hadn’t, so I decided to give it a go.

What surprised me the most was how clear Darwin’s Victorian prose was. I was mesmerized by the concept of “descent with modification” or as it came to be known, “evolution.” Shortly after reading Origin, a new volume by Stephen Jay Gould passed through the library — a collection of essays entitled Ever Since Darwin. I gave this a read and subsequently read every book of essays Gould produced, culled from his monthly column in Natural History.

As a newly-minted amateur naturalist and birder I became hooked on reading science books written for the general public. The 60’s mantra “all is one” took on a philosophically material interpretation when I studied how the universe started, how suns ignited and planets formed, and how, on this one we call Earth, life sparked and evolved, going through great periods of diversity, extinction, more diversity, more extinction, and so on, leading eventually to a group of suddenly sapient simians. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are made from the remnants of star dust, and every living thing on the planet is related.

My readings in science and science history led me to reaffirm the existentialist theme that life can be heaven or hell, but human beings mean very little in the face of the universe. I shed any last remnants of religion. Materially, we are bodies that live and die, each of us randomly sorted into different situations, different cultures, different countries and it’s these things that shape our sense of who we are.

There are people for whom science is enough. To paraphrase Darwin, there’s a grandeur to this concept of life and its descent with modification through time and its tangled branches and the sudden bursts of evolution that Gould referred to as “punctuated equilibrium.” This is a gestalt that most naturalists come to feel through their observation of life’s many remarkable species.

But is science alone enough to sustain the human spirit, or psyche, that je ne sais quoi that some people call a “soul”? Perhaps, and perhaps not, depending on the individual. What science does, for me, is to throw into relief all the amazing works of mankind, from art, history, philosophy, literature, and music to the increasing technological achievements that accompanied the industrial revolution.

By the time I had begun to assimilate this naturalistic view, information technology was picking up the pace. Television, radio, newspapers and other media shaped us and moulded us in ways that perhaps only Marshall McLuhan could sort out. But that was merely a preface of things to come: the computer revolution.

Bits, Bytes, and Qubits

From the late 70s onward the computer revolution picked up momentum until it reached nearly Biblical proportions: “And in that time a great change came across the land” [my paraphrase]. Computing became personal, portable, and profoundly ubiquitous.

Like others, I joined the revolution, pivoting my career from librarianship to Information Technology (IT). From the earliest whimsical days that included an ad in Byte Magazine for dBase II, entitled “dBASE II vs The Bilge Pump,” to the corporate adoption of personal computers as strategic tools in the workplace, to the computer (aka smartphone) in one’s pocket or purse, a virtual Pandora’s box of consequences was unleashed.

My work involved setting up workstations, email servers, database servers, storage servers, web servers, and firewalls, with a little programming tossed in for spice. I enjoyed decades of computing projects and by the time I retired, in 2006, the industry had progressed from 8-bit personal computers such as the Apple II, to 64-bit powerhouses running Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS, Android, and a few dozen lesser-known operating systems. Smartphones and tablets had become almost a birthright.

Computing begat digital photography, streaming audio and video, automobile electronics, appliance electronics, social networks, and, with lesser success, self-driving cars. I now listen to streaming music, watch streaming videos, and get my news and opinion pages from the Internet.

On another level, machine learning (ML) has grown and penetrated the Internet to such a degree that one can examine a product on Amazon and see ads for it within hours on Facebook. Privacy has suffered. The Internet, invented for the purpose of sharing scientific information, developed a dark side, the extent of which is still being assessed — surveillance, phishing attacks, the hacking of personal information, and possibly enough manipulation to sway elections.

The pace is still swift and the increasingly successful bids to harness Quantum Computing (whose basic unit of information is called a Qubit) will likely bring unforeseen changes. Nothing stands still.

End Game

“You can’t stop the future. You can’t rewind the past. The only way to learn the secret, is to press play” ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

In my retirement, I’ve once again become a student. I read incessantly, both fiction and nonfiction, I take the occasional online course, and I think, if not profoundly, at least genuinely. It aids thinking to have a philosophical framework to compare one’s thoughts to, and I continue to find the challenge of existentialism worthwhile for this. It’s an honest philosophy, derived from the human spirit looking at an irrational and uncaring, absurd, universe and deciding to carve out a personal meaning for being human. It’s a difficult challenge (never underestimate existential angst) but it’s more open and honest than clinging to a derived set of values, liberal or conservative, from those around us.

I’m beginning to understand why Camus used the story of Sisyphus to highlight the challenge. In the Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned to roll a huge boulder to the top of a hill. Every time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back to the bottom and he was required to repeat the procedure, for eternity. “Camus claims that when Sisyphus acknowledges the futility of his task and the certainty of his fate, he is freed to realize the absurdity of his situation and to reach a state of contented acceptance. With a nod to the similarly cursed Greek hero Oedipus, Camus concludes that ‘all is well,’ indeed, that ‘one must imagine Sisyphus happy.’” [Wikipedia, “The Myth of Sisyphus”]

It would be neat and tidy, at this final stage of my life, to wrap up my thoughts with a pretty bow attached, but I’m unable to do so. There have always been random elements in our story that change the story itself: a colliding meteor, a world war, an economic depression, climate change, the overthrowing of the monarchy and aristocracy, the re-establishment of a wealthy set of plutocrats, the place you were born, the family you emerged from, the schools you attended, the number of freedoms, or lack thereof, of the prevailing government, and, not least, who you fall in love with. It is difficult to piece all this together into a holistic understanding. I am, in my final years, still waiting — waiting for gestalt.

 

Atlantis Farewell

When I grew up, in the 1950s, it was a time when researchers were still searching for Bridey Murphy and field and stream magazines still reported sightings of Bigfoot. Flying Saucer Magazine could be found at the drugstore magazine counter, and ESP was thought to have been a proven phenomenon at Duke University.

Concurrently we were administered first the Salk polio vaccine, and then the Sabin replacement. The 20th Century at its mid period was a time when science was coming on strong but beliefs in the strange and supernatural persisted deeply into the general culture of the day.

I liked science, just as I liked Mickey Mantle, but it resided in a place alongside the prophetic dreams of Edgar Cayce and the local church. As a noncritical child, I believed pretty much in everything, including the lost continent of Atlantis. The very fact that I have to provide links to some of these references shows the distance between today and then. Today most of this material has been relegated to the pages of the National Enquirer.

Science, in the meantime, has thrived and grown and has to a large degree undermined the realm of UFOs, yeti, and the supernatural. In places the local church is still thriving, but the numbers are dwindling every year as the congregations age and the true believers leave this life.

By the end of the 20th Century we were well on our way toward a new Age of Enlightenment, if by enlightenment we mean dispelling beliefs that have no provable basis in fact.

By this point in the 21st Century science and scientific thinking have become even more pervasive, despite outbreaks, particularly in the United States, of anti-scientific undercurrents such as anti-vaccination movements and anti-evolution legislation. Frustrating though they may be to a rational person, these movements will die out as surely as the search for Bridey Murphy. There is nothing real to sustain them.

I don’t mind this sea-change in perspective because I vowed, many years ago, not to believe in things for which there was no good evidence. In my case, this included religion.

However, one area I see fading away causes me some lamentation: the receding of mythology as a force of the psyche. Through the 60s and 70s it seemed that Carl Jung, with his archetypes, and popularizers of Jungian thinking, like Joseph Campbell, had somehow tapped into the wellspring of the human spirit. Mythic stories run deep through our emotions and often lead us to a feeling of epiphany. Of all the things I’ve given up from my youth, mythology is the hardest. I don’t mean myth as story—which is eternally fascinating—but myth as something fundamental to the human psyche.

But as brain science knowledge spreads, it seems the concept of a psyche is little more than a brain construct—a side effect of consciousness. Of course there is pushback to this kind of materialistic thinking, a kind of Cartesian split of brain/mind, but it’s difficult for a rational person to see much basis in fact for this view. Nonetheless the idea of a brain/mind split reaches far back in Western philosophy and is hard to shake off simply because it’s been with us for so long.

Like the measles, however, belief in a psyche can be inoculated against by sticking with the hard evidence. In time it will be seen to be as mythical as the lost continent of Atlantis—a pretty, captivating story, but unsustainable as a model of reality.

Dispensing with old beliefs, especially cherished ones, is difficult. Yet the rewards of maintaining evidence-based reasoning outweigh the pain of parting with wish-fulfillment, faith-based beliefs. It cleanses thinking and prepares one for the real world. There comes a time when it’s necessary, for good mental hygiene, to say farewell to Atlantis.

Taking Stock: Facing 2012

iPhone Selfie

I hope you all had a good Christmas and New Year season!

Traditionally New Years Day is a time for resolutions that will largely be unkept in the months that follow, so I’ll refrain from making any. Besides some of them are ongoing no matter what time of year: lose weight, exercise more, write more.

Looking back to 2011, I’ve had a Macbook Air (11″) for a year now and it’s so slick and useful it still feels new. As such it’s an incentive to get down to the task of writing just so I can use it. I enjoy my technologies, but it’s been a long time since one has stayed so fresh. Kudos to Apple for another brilliant design and execution.

There are rumours of a new iPad in the works some time 2012. If it turns out to be true I might be ready to pick one up. I gave my previous one to Marion after getting the more writer-friendly Macbook Air, but I confess I miss the iPad experience. I get a miniature version of it with my iPhone 4 but it’s not the same without the large viewing screen.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a fan of podcasts and I’d like to pay tribute to my two favourites: I Should Be Writing, by Mur Lafferty, and Brain Science Podcast, by Dr. Ginger Campbell. You ladies have allowed me to listen in on hours of intelligent conversation. Thank you.

I have a couple of directions I may take my writing in 2012. One idea I’ve been kicking around is putting together a series of personal essays into a Kindle book. The other is to write on a couple of subjects that interest me, but as extended feature articles that could be published as Kindle Shorts.

I don’t have any special photo projects in mind for the year. I’m content to carry a camera around with me and take shots of this and that as I see things. I plan to post a new photo on my Flickr photostream every day, if possible. The camera in my iPhone 4 increases my odds of meeting this goal.

One of the things I may do more of in 2012 is post short reviews of books I’ve read. My current reading is Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution, by Toby E. Huff. I’m about 25% into it and already it’s shaping up as the best science book I’ve read in the past year.

Currently listening to The Harrow & The Harvest, by Gillian Welch. Indispensable if you like a traditional folk sound.

My other two goals for the New Year are to study more philosophy and mathematics. I’m nearly ready to tackle my Algebra II course and I have a good Teaching Company Great Lectures course Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida that I’ve started. Staying intellectually active is less a goal than a deep-seated need. I suspect it’s the same for you.

I look forward to seeing and hearing from friends in 2012. May your 2012 be a wonderful year.

Last Post

Shadow Photographer

After several years of indulging in personal blog writing, I’ve decided to call it quits. It’s been fun to come up with topics and I’ve greatly enjoyed your many comments.

I’m moving on to more content-oriented writing and might, if my plans work out, start a blog on Exploring the Credit, taking day trips along the length of the Credit Valley from the harbour to the headlands, and sharing that information in blog format.

I feel myself getting stale in thinking up personal topics and my personal posts have become more infrequent and, consequently, less interesting. There are so many personal blogs out there that the absence of this one won’t be noticed.

Thank you for your kind support.

Gene

A Fallen Photographer Confronts Simplicity

Window Crank

Simplicity.  An alluring concept — easy to grasp, easy to understand, yet as difficult to achieve as your ideal waist size, an undeviating heart-friendly diet, or world peace. If Thoreau thought simplicity difficult to achieve in the 19th century when he took to the woods in a log cabin at Walden Pond, how can any of us achieve simplicity while being bombarded by one hundred trillion cell phone emissions per minute? Besides, after two years of chopping wood, snorting nature, and filling several notebooks with philosophical scrivenings, Thoreau chucked it and moved back to town.

When I was young, with a mind as pliable as potter’s clay, I thought Thoreau was onto something. Doesn’t everyone wish life were a little simpler? Simple as in less complex, not simple as in the mindedness of the Republican election platform.

Take photography for instance. Why do enthusiastic photographers acquire so much gear? The other day I went on a photo walk with just my Canon S3 IS digicam, a lightweight point-and-shoot with a lens range equivalent to 36-432mm — what is sometimes referred to as a superzoom model, as opposed to all the other models which the manufacturers assure us are all super, at least until they are replaced by newer, superer ones.

In addition to its zoom versatility, the S3 has good macro capabilities, and a surprisingly good movie mode that, I must confess, I usually forget is there. I’ll not be providing competition to Michael Moore any time soon. The S3 is a comfortable camera, so I ask myself why do I bother with bulkier, heavier SLR and DSLR cameras with their various lenses when I could shoot 90% or more of my images with the S3?

The lure of this logic, with its overtones of monogamous virtue, has caused me, twice, to sell off DSLR cameras in a quest for simplicity. I essentially divorced two nice DSLRs: a Canon 300D Digital Rebel and then a Pentax *istD2. My newly-resolved relationship with a single, worthy P&S digicam lasted for perhaps six months, but in the end it was doomed to failure because while the lure of simplicity pulls me one way, I must confess to a problem that pulls me in another: lust for lenses. For me the online KEH used camera and lens store in Atlanta is a camera porn site to which I may be as addicted as David Duchovny is to the human variety.

Not only do I fancy lenses, I often fancy the older ones, as perhaps befits my age. I won’t state my age, but if you guessed 63 you’d be exactly close.

So, we come to the nub of it: lust leads to complexity. You acquire lenses, then you need a new body. Soon you have so many lenses it’s no longer possible to maintain a discrete relationship with each one. Your lens drawer becomes a sultan’s harem of complexity.

Perhaps Sarah Palin would counsel abstinence, but when you’re already pregnant with an expanding lens collection, it’s a little late, though I agree it would be morally reprehensible to suddenly abort. If I’d had lens education early enough I might have taken precautions, but as it is I’m a fallen photographer.

So, at last I face the varnished truth: I am a photographer with lens issues. For me simplicity is no more attainable than is a profound appreciation and understanding of punctuated equilibrium by George W. We all have our limitations.

Thus, after a lifetime of longing for simplicity, I bid adieu to Henry David Thoreau and his clever Walden memes. There is more than one kind of addiction, and an addiction to the idea of simplicity leads not to the promised land, but to the sorrow of yet another unobtainable dream (YAUD, in geek terminology). Besides, my cell phone is chirping, and I have to take this call.

Summer of Bounty

JC Saddington Park (by StarbuckGuy)

There’s nothing like a bypass operation to put some perspective into your life. You taste mortality and realize the fragility of being alive. With it comes an appreciation of life and all living things. As I’ve recuperated over the summer, I’ve enjoyed the outdoors as never before. In addition it’s been an extraordinary summer.

Record amounts of rainfall have kept lawns green and blossoms in bloom longer than normal. By August our lawns are usually scorched and the late-blooming summer flowers pose against a dry backbround. Not this year. Everything is verdant.

White Coneflower (by StarbuckGuy)

I started the summer with very short walks that taxed the limit of my endurance. As my strength increased, I began carrying extremely lightweight cameras, gradually working up to the Nikon D40 that I bought especially for the rehab period. The length of my walks increased and as I developed more strength I bought a bicycle to add variety to my exercise regimen and to increase the radius of my travels. Both the D40 and the bicycle were great additions and I’ve developed a relatively safe method of packing the D40 into a padded bag that fits on the rack over the back wheel. With this I’ve been able to get shots of new places like the lakeshore view in front of the Adamson Estate and the mouth of the harbour where the Mississauga Sailing Club is located.

Lake Ontario (by StarbuckGuy)

Canoeists (by StarbuckGuy)

One side effect of my recovery surprised me a little. I find I have less interest in owning several types of camera than I did previously. My new impulse is to simplify and thin my gear collection. As a result I sold my Hasselblad kit — probably the nicest bit of gear I’ve ever owned, but gear I wasn’t using much. I used the proceeds to upgrade my Nikon D200 to a Nikon D300. I wasn’t able to carry around a heavy DSLR like the Nikon D300 until recently. Now it’s my main camera for walks on most days. I like using different lenses with it, mainly older Nikon AIS lenses that I also use on my Nikon film bodies. I particularly like using my Nikkor AF 24mm f/2.8 on the D300, as in this photo of early morning sunshine and haze outside our front door.

Streaming Light (by StarbuckGuy)

But most of all, I’m enjoying the summer itself — its sunny days and rainy days, hot days and cool days. And all the creatures, including humankind, enjoying the summer’s bounty.

River Tour (by StarbuckGuy)

Green Critter (by StarbuckGuy)

Goldfinch (by StarbuckGuy)

Monarch Butterfly (by StarbuckGuy)

I’m not a religious person, but I remain in awe of the evolution of life on this planet and I’m thankful to be a conscious being able to appreciate its beauty. A planet that can produce beings who can contemplate, and magnificent birds like ospreys to inspire those beings, is a very special place, and this summer has been a special chapter in its long story.

Osprey (by StarbuckGuy)

Searching for Secular Meditation

Spring Shadows (by StarbuckGuy)

It’s been a number of years since I was last interested in meditation. I first encountered it as a student, when wandering through the stacks of the university library, looking for something for a literature course I was taking, I peeked through the bookstacks and saw a book with an intriguing title, The Way of Zen, in the next aisle. I’d heard of Zen of course. The Beat poets were fond of it and I’d seen some beautiful Japanese prints that were described to me as in the Zen tradition of art, but I didn’t know much about it. I checked out the book, by Alan Watts as it turned out, and entered what was then a new chapter of my life.

Like many a youth I was on something of a spiritual quest and the slippery Zen koans and the discipline of meditation appealed to me. I’d rather outgrown the Christianity I’d been raised with (both Protestant and Catholic) and this seemed a more sophisticated and interesting kind of spiritualism. Not that Zen should be called “spiritual” but that was my youthful take on it. A little Zen, a little pot, a little acid, a little Taoism, a little Carlos Castenada — it was the 60’s of course, and it marked a deep collective inturning toward mysticism and magic.

After I shed the 60’s, I found myself still interested in meditation and for awhile I linked up with a California-based group called Self Realization Fellowship. I joined them once a week for guided meditations and I practiced meditation on my own. At the time Carl Jung was probably my greatest influence and I sought some kind of oneness with the cosmos, at least symbolically.

I look back with fondness on that period of my life, however non-critical my thinking was then. It was a poetic period. Later I gradually became more secular and more agnostic in my beliefs. What started me in this direction was the study of natural history. I became intensely interested in birds, plants, and the world around us. As I learned about ecosystems and the evolution of life on earth (something I never doubted for I was always of a scientific persuasion that favoured evidence-based conclusions), I gradually came to see my earlier mindset as, well, youthful. I had matured, developing a humanistic, secular viewpoint that was skeptical of spiritual claims and highly doubtful of anything that smacked of the supernatural, including a belief in a god.

These days I call myself a “friendly, non-militant atheist”. In other words, I’m not a hard-core Dawkinsian type of in-your-face atheist. Although I see evidence of many of the horrible things religions have wrought, and are still wringing, I experienced its comfort and solace at a younger age, and would not dream of challenging anyone’s personal belief in something they hold sacred. As long as it doesn’t cross over into public policies and legislation. Church and state must be kept separate. Religions have no lock on morality. There are good people among the religious and non-religious alike, and evil people in both categories. We are all humans, capable of greatness and capable of atrocity.

With that background, you may understand why I have been seeking a secular form of meditation. Anything that smacks of Eastern religions or New Age mumbo-jumbo gives me the fantods. Unfortunately, most guided meditations fall into these camps. The reason I’m interested in meditation is simply for its acknowledged contribution to good health. I tend to have a streak of anxiety in my nature and I think meditation would be good for me.

To that end I downloaded some meditation podcasts. One, which I shall not name, claimed to be unaffiliated with any religion or school of thought so that’s the one I started with. When I first played it I thought something had corrupted the download, for the host’s voice sounded sibilant and distorted. Then I realized that it was a deliberate sound effect, resembling, to me, the cheap audio distortions used for aliens on the older Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes. I suppose the host wanted to sound mystic.

But I tried to persevere. The music was relaxing, creating a dreamy mood. I had no problem with that — it was rather nice. Then the host said (and repeated this several times), “feel yourself filling with infinite peace, infinite joy, infinite love.” Infinite? Crikey, not even the universe we inhabit appears to be infinite. If I recall correctly, its size has been estimated — something you can’t do with something infinite. As the host repeated this injunction my distress rose. Why infinite? I could certainly envision my heart filling with peace, love, and joy, but not the infinite variety. It’s a meaningless term.

The host then used an image that was the worst he could have picked for a recovering heart surgery patient. “Look at a lit candle. Now imagine the candle in your heart.” I could imagine it all right, and it elicited horror. End of meditation.

As I thought about this for a day or two, I recalled a book I’d read years ago called The Relaxation Response, by Herbert Benson. What I distinctly remembered about it was that although the controlled experiments confirming the efficacy of meditation were initially run on students of Transcendental Meditation, the same efficacy was found to be significant for test subjects who simply relaxed for the same period, rather than meditating on a TM mantra.

I did a little googling and found a website for Benson. In it he had a little “Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response” piece that was just what I was looking for. Sitting calmly, letting the muscles relax, then concentrating on breathing. No more, no less. Yes, this is what I was looking for. A simple, secular meditation technique with no spiritual strings attached. I don’t need my chakras to glow colourfully or white light to emit from my head to enjoy a good meditation. Nor could I believe they would anyway. Likewise I’m not interested in references to Buddha and Bodhisattvas, supposed individuals who returned from a cycle of reincarnation to be spiritual teachers to mankind. Give me a break. Meditation should be no more special, or spiritual, than taking a walk.

I should add that, for me, taking walks is very special indeed, but not for spiritual reasons, unless by “spirit” you mean that aspect of mind, a percept of the brain, that allows us to reflect on the world around us, and take joy in being one of the earth’s creatures — one that walks bipedally during its short but sweet lifetime.

Breathe in, breathe out, relax. Life is precious. As far as I can see, you only have one, so live it well. Don’t plan on an afterlife. Focus, instead, on the current, and likely only, one.