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Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life.

Stopping to buy a few fruits and vegetables at a roadside family farm, I linger to chat with the co-owner. She describes the process by which she and her husband make their own Greek yogurt. I, in turn, report on a meal I concocted the night before: a medley of steamed kale, roasted bell peppers, and cashews served with quinoa. She says it sounds delicious. What could be more ordinary than our casual conversation, our brief exchange of words?

Yet what could be more mysterious, once you look into it–this capacity for thought, speech, and conversation, made possible by the human brain? Watching my eighteen-month-old granddaughter acquire words and concepts, I’m newly awed by the complexity and indeed the mystery of the process. According to the scientific findings reported by Alison Gopnik in her book The Philosophical Baby, there is far more thought, including thoughts of the past and future, going on in infants’ and toddlers’ brains than ever we imagined. And the same mystery surrounds the workings of our own, grown-up brains, which even the most advanced neuroscience has yet to fathom. Neuroscientists now understand single neurons and patterns of neurons fairly well, but how those neurons work together to produce an action remains unknown. How, asks Larry Abbott, a prominent neuroscientist, can one pattern of firing neurons “make you jump off the couch and run out the door, and others make you just sit there and do nothing?”* That fundamental question has yet to be answered.

And as with the brain, so with the body. If you practice one or more of the so-called healing arts–Hatha Yoga, T’ai Chi, Qigong–you may have found that over time your bodily awareness has dramatically increased. You now notice minute changes in the form, strength, and flexibility of your limbs. Less happily, you also notice your most minor tensions, aches, and pains. But sensitivity is one thing and deep understanding quite another. For the latter, most of us must rely on health-care professionals to diagnose and treat our ills and maladies. And, as Dr. Jerome Groopman, in his book How Doctors Think, vividly illustrates, doctors themselves must rely on intuition and educated guesswork, as much as on their training, knowledge, and experience. “Medicine is an art, not a science,” a local doctor informed me many years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed, recovering from a bleeding ulcer and wanting answers. More recently, when a dermatologist had examined a pesky skin disorder from which I’d been suffering, she offered what she called her “working hypothesis.” Disconcerting though they may be, such remarks are also oddly reassuring. When all is said, the human body remains a mystery, and I’m relieved to hear experts humbly admitting as much.

Beyond the mysteries of mind and body, there is the profound mystery of death and its aftermath. Zen teachings call it the “Great Matter of Life and Death.” In a famous Zen story, the eighteenth-century master Hakuin Ekaku encounters a samurai, who asks him what happens after death. “I don’t know,” Hakuin replies. “How can you not know?” the samurai retorts, “you’re a Zen master.” “Yes,” replies Hakuin, “but not a dead one.” Oft-repeated by contemporary teachers, that riposte epitomizes the general attitude of Western Zen to questions of death, rebirth, and the like. In contrast to other spiritual traditions, Buddhist included, Zen offers no maps, itineraries, or guidelines.

What Zen does offer is a practice through which we may cultivate an attitude of openness, awe, and appreciation toward the whole of life, including its mysterious, timeless dimension, which Shunryu Suzuki Roshi called “something which has no form and no color–something which exists before all forms and colors appear.”** In that connection, and in the spirit of the season, may I suggest listening afresh to the King’s College Choir’s 2009 rendition of Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, which interweaves dissonant, twentieth-century harmonies with an ancient text in a work of surpassing beauty.

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* James Gorman, “Learning How Little We Know About the Brain,” New York Times, November 10, 2014.

** Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), 116.

The painter and printmaker Greg Dunn holds a doctorate in neuroscience.  His present work grew out of his realization “that the elegant forms of neurons (the cells that comprise your brain) can be painted expressively in the Asian sumi-e style.”  Visit his website at www.gregadunn.com

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Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: (more…)

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Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

We can throw away a soiled tissue. We can throw away Q-tips, outdated appliances, and countless other items in our everyday lives. But can we also discard our ill-founded thoughts and one-sided perceptions? Our cherished notions?

According to classical Buddhist teachings, many if not most of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. “Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.” And correspondingly, “the practice of throwing away our notions and views is so important. Liberation is not possible without this throwing away.” Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “it takes insight and courage to throw away an idea.” Views we have held for decades–or perhaps for a lifetime–are not so easily disposed of, especially when they appear to have served us well. (more…)

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       Scott Chapel    Drake University

Scott Chapel
Drake University

Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we of a certain age were asked to recall where we were when the president was shot. As it happened, I was then a sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I listened to the announcement of the president’s death in the lobby of Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, where a few of us had gathered around a portable radio. In retrospect, however, the question of where I was seems less important than where I went, having just received that sad and shocking news.

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Bexley,_pond_at_Danson_Park_-_geograph_org_uk_-_972263Here in the village of Alfred, New York, many of us subscribe to our community newspaper, the Alfred Sun. And some us have discovered that the Alfred Sun, accompanied by a few well-placed squirts of Windex, can make short work of washing windows. The Sun is compact, maneuverable, and eco-friendly. Two full pages will suffice to wash a standard casement window. You can wash as many as three with a single issue.

A few weeks ago, I was engaged in that very task, but the work was not going well. Although I’d liberally applied the Windex and energetically rubbed it off, thick streaks remained. Repeated efforts produced the same result. Newsprint is effective for cleaning glass, I recalled, because the oil in printer’s ink repels the dirty water. Could someone have quietly switched inks? Should I try the Times Literary Supplement instead? (more…)

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The weir on the river Chew in Pensford

The weir on the river Chew in Pensford

It has often been observed that time seems to go faster as we grow older. Our birthdays arrive with increasing rapidity. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I began to feel as if I were taking the garbage cans out to the curb every other morning. And with each ensuing decade this subjective sense of accelerating time, which a number of my older friends have also noted, has grown ever more prominent. It is as if we were afloat on a swiftly moving river, and each of those “important” birthdays, the ones that mark the decades of our lives, were another waterfall, whose drop and velocity have yet to be experienced.

Yet, from the vantage point of Zen teachings, neither birthdays nor waterfalls are quite what they appear to be. They are at once real and illusory. In his book Living by Vow the Soto Zen priest Shohaku Okumura has this to say about waterfalls:

A river flows past a place where there is a change of height, and a waterfall is formed. Yet there is no such thing as a waterfall, only a continuous flow of water. A waterfall is not a thing but rather a name for a process of happening. . . . We cannot distinguish where the waterfall starts and ends because it is a continuous process.*

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Chickadee feeder 2012-06-25 005One spring morning five years ago, as I was watching chickadees flit around our backyard feeder, it occurred to me that those nimble little birds might appreciate having a trapeze on which to perch. When my son was a child I built him a trapeze, and he enjoyed it. Perhaps the chickadees would as well.

Construction was simple. Rummaging in the garage, I found a remnant of 3/4” flat screen molding. From this I cut two six-inch pieces for the top and bottom bars. These I connected with a central, four-inch dowel. Using wire-cloth staples, I fastened two three-inch lengths of cuckoo-clock chain to the ends of the top bar, joining them at the middle with a handsome brass S-hook. My trapeze thus completed, I hung it from a branch of our pin oak tree. Ready for occupancy, it swung invitingly in the wind. (more…)

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