Mind-Forged Manacles


C’est l’Ennui!—l’oeil chargé d’un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d’échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!*

Baudelaire “Au Lecteur”

In our culture of hyper-stimulation, silence has become the rarest of commodities. In the evening of an overcast, humid, post-solstice sabbath, a siren swirls off in the distance while some unseen high-pitched mechanical blower/sandblaster/particle-collider keens like an instrument of torture.

To me, a native of the Lowcountry, summer’s official beginning is a sad occasion. The best weather is already behind us. The drip drip drip of days will winnow with less and less daylight as the ambitious resolutions of early June melt in the heat like wax sculptures – the hot tub not repaired, the school work delayed, the evenings, mornings, afternoons dissipating inevitability into oblivion.

*It’s the soul-stunting boredom – an involuntary tear in the eye.
Smoking the houka, he dreams
of gallows. Reader, you know this exquisite malady.
You, hypocrite reader – my soulmate – my brother!

very loosely translated by I-and-I (who assures you it sounds great in French)

Ennui, by Askerov

Ennui, by Askerov

O, woe is me!

Even though I have access to an array of Robert Altman films I can stream instantly via Netflix, Nashville is not available; the beach that is exactly .32 miles away is teeming with vulgarians, the gorgeous vista behind our house muted by the cloud cover.

Bill Clinton, you can’t even begin to feel my pain!


Perhaps, the decadent, entitled, whining dissatisfaction sampled above stems from my disinclination to seek out silence. The East has provided us with techniques to subdue what zen masters call “the monkey mind,” i.e., the brain’s tendency to flash from idea to longing to memory the way a spider monkey slashes from tree to tree to tree.

spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi)

spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi)

One of the many beauties of Buddhism is that it provides its practitioners a regimen of exercises that transforms the mind – to switch metaphors – from murky strom-tossed waters into a glassy pool that reflects things as they are. Buddhism relies on self (not supernatural) reliance in the paradoxical quest to annihilate ego.

“If you understand real practice, then archery or other activities can be zen. If you don’t understand how to practice archery in its true sense, then even though you practice very hard, what you acquire is just technique. It won’t help you through and through. Perhaps you can hit the mark without trying, but without a bow and arrow you cannot do anything. If you understand the point of practice, then even without a bow and arrow the archery will help you. How you get that kind of power or ability is only through right practice.”
― Shunryu Suzuki, Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen

Jeff League: Bonsai Tree with Blossoms

Jeff League: Bonsai Tree with Blossoms

Oh, but if right practice were only that easy! The changes are oh so slow. After all, according to Buddhist teachings, it’s a regimen that may take lifetimes rather than weeks to perfect.

Plus, the Faustian temptations – the webs (worldwide/ otherwise) that stretch out to snare us. Why assume the half lotus when I can watch reruns of What’s My Line? on YouTube or channel surf with a television monitor that provides images that seem more wonderful than the flora and fauna outside my window?

Not to mention the restive hardwired desires for sustenance and sex.

Nevertheless, as the adage goes, charity begins at home, and right practice is ultimately a matter of self will. In fact, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus offers a superb example of the dangers expressed at the beginning of this post – the tendency to shrug off the profound for the superficial, to squander precious moments in fruitless distractions. Remember, Faustus sold his soul to achieve greater knowledge, to understand how the cosmos functioned, yet soon enough started wasting his powers in trivialities, e.g., playing magical tricks on his adversaries and conjuring illusions like Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships/And toppled the topless towers of Ilium.
The 16th century equivalent of computer porn.

5 D. Fausti Buhlschaft mit Helena aus Graecia

Of course, the mind itself consists of the most delicate of chemical balances. What we so naively consider our substantial selves is an illusion conjured by a delicate mixture of amino acids, monoamines, acetylchlorine, nitric acids, etc.

A hit of illicit acid or a doctor prescribed dose of Prednisone can transform the seemingly substantial you from Jekyll to Hyde, begging the metaphysical/existential question who or what am I?*

Certainly, successful meditation must alter our brain chemistry in some mysterious way that leads to serenity. Here’s an anecdote from Ram Dass (aka Richard Albert) on the subject:

*Note to former students: Cf. Raskolnikov, Harry Haller, Stephen Dedalus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Othello, Emma Bovary, Milkman, Willy Logan, Merseault, Elizabeth Bennet, Raskolinkov, Mr. Kurtz, Dorothea Brooke . . .

In 1967 when I first came to India, I brought with me a supply of LSD, hoping to find someone who might understand more about these substances than we did in the West.

When I had met Maharajji (Neem Karoli Baba), after some days the thought had crossed my mind that he would be a perfect person to ask. The next day after having that thought, I was called to him and he asked me immediately, “Do you have a question?”

Of course, being before him was such a powerful experience that I had completely forgotten the question I had had in my mind the night before. So I looked stupid and said, “No, Maharajji, I have no question.”He appeared irritated and said, “Where is the medicine?”

I was confused but Bhagavan Dass suggested, ” Maybe he means the LSD.” I asked and Maharajji nodded. The bottle of LSD was in the car and I was sent to fetch it. When I returned I emptied the vial of pills into my hand. In addition to the LSD there were a number of other pills for this and that–diarrhea, fever, a sleeping pill, and so forth. He asked about each of these.

He asked if they gave powers. I didn’t understand at the time and thought that by “powers” perhaps he meant physical strength. I said, “No.” Later, of course, I came to understand that the word he had used, “siddhis,” means psychic powers. Then he held out his hand for the LSD. I put one pill on his palm. Each of these pills was about three hundred micrograms of very pure LSD–a solid dose for an adult. He beckoned for more, so I put a second pill in his hand–six hundred micrograms. Again he beckoned and I added yet another, making the total dosage nine hundred micrograms–certainly not a dose for beginners. Then he threw all the pills into his mouth. My reaction was one of shock mixed with fascination of a social scientist eager to see what would happen.

He allowed me to stay for an hour– and nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever.

Although we must cast a skeptical eye on anecdotal evidence, logic itself suggests that we at least give meditation a try, even if it yields something less than guru-dom. If it can help us shed delusions and rediscover wonder in the everyday, why not take the plunge? Meditation is religion neutral – the Southern Baptist and Shite Muslim (they have more in common than you might imagine) can practice meditation in honor of their respective deities.

It has in my negligible experience helped me to focus outside of myself to discover a certain interrelatedness, and the twenty minutes it costs can be scheduled between texting and checking emails – sometime during the evanescent day’s decline into darkness.
Just try to make sure you’re somewhere quiet.

photograph by Judy Birdsong

photograph by Judy Birdsong

The Art of Not Thinking

tree painting
The sages tell us that the knack of not thinking is the pathway to serenity, that we should focus on the here and now because the past and future are abstractions existing only in the present. Rather than obsessing about your worsening health, your culture’s decline, or the peril the planet faces as oceans rise and deserts expand, you should play it cool, like the lilies of the field.

Don’t fritter away your time worrying – they say — taste the sweetness of the apple upon your palette, appreciate the miracle of the buzzing fly battering against the brilliance of the windowpane.

Be present in the present.

However, to riff on/off Elizabeth Bishop, “The art of not thinking is difficult to master,” especially if you’re staring down the barrels of big time problems like bankruptcy, prison, or debilitating disease. Obviously, if creditors are leaving angry messages on your phone or your joints throb or you’re packing a suitcase for the Big House, it’s extremely difficult not to dwell on these much-more-than-inconveniences.

Yet, the sages are right: worry and fret don’t help the situation. They short-circuit your taste buds, blind you to the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. Unrelenting worry can turn your life into a Gerard Manley Hopkins dark night of the soul:

Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Hence, philosophies like stoicism, religions with afterlives, spiritual exercises like Zen meditation, and of course, drugs.

The problem with drugs, even though they offer the quickest respite, is that they wear off, leaving you possibly worse off than before, so you tend to turn to them more and more often, and the more and more you rely on them, the less and less effective they become. Eventually, if you manage to stay alive and out of jail, they stunt the amygdala, the pleasure center of the brain, and joy becomes increasingly difficult to experience.

But it’s not like you can become a stoic in a day or a Zen master with a week’s worth of sitting. Religions with afterlives can offer speedier relief, but generally, non-believers don’t opt for them until they hit the bottom of the abyss.

When I was a child, I was a crybaby.  I’d cry when I lost my crayons at school, when my favorite team lost, when I thought about something sad that happened to my mother as a child. However, over the course of my life, through reading literary fiction, I developed a sort of stoicism. What I discovered in Thebes and Elsinore and Yoknapatawpha is that suffering is universal. To quote Rick from Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”   In other words, suffering doesn’t make you special; it makes you human.

And, yes, in moderation, alcohol and drugs can help as well, help you relax after a hard day or get your serotonin levels back to normal so you don’t wake up at 3 a.m. and feel the fell of dark, not day.

Ultimately, treasure right now what one day will be gone without thinking of the fact that one day it will be gone.

That’s knack of not thinking.

* * *

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,

The maddest noise that grows, –

The birds, they make it in the spring,

At night’s delicious close.


Between the March and April line –

That magical frontier

Beyond which summer hesitates,

Almost too heavenly near.


It makes us think of all the dead

That sauntered with us here,

By separation’s sorcery

Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,

And what we now deplore.

We almost wish those siren throats

Would go and sing no more.


An ear can break a human heart

As quickly as a spear,

We wish the ear had not a heart

So dangerously near.

~Emily Dickinson


Zen Lullaby

Morpheus and Iris, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811

Morpheus and Iris, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811

Poets for centuries have lauded the serenity that sleep can bring. From Rolfe Humphries’s gorgeous translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, here’s Alcyone in Book 11 addressing Morpheus, the God of Sleep:

O mildest of the gods, most gentle Sleep,

Rest of all things, the spirit’s comforter,

Router of care, O soother and restorer . . .

O, to be able to sneak off on a weeknight to Morpheus’s cave where

[ . .] No bird

With clarion cry ever calls out the morning,

Dogs never break the silence with their barking,

Geese never cackle, cattle never low,

No boughs move in the stir of air, no people

Talk in human voices.  Only quiet.

From under the rock’s base a little stream,

A branch of Lethe, trickles, with a murmur

over the shiny pebbles, whispering Sleep!

Before its doors great beds of poppies bloom

And other herbs, whose juices Night distills

To sprinkle slumber over the darkened earth.

There is no door to turn upon its hinge

With jarring sound, no guardian at the gate.

Me rather:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

We’re talking two the three a.m., brothers and sisters, the illuminated digits of the alarm clock silently progressing towards Morpheus-bereft morn and its traffic-choked slow progression to an awaiting electronic mailbox teeming with emails cajoling, demanding, chuckling, warning, applauding, joking, alerting, reminding.

What we need is a 3 a.m. surefire lullaby for adults that will allow “[t]he kind assassin Sleep” to “draw a bead and blow [our] brains out” (Richard Wilbur, “Walking to Sleep”).

However, brothers and sisters, this ain’t it:

art and lyrics by Wesley Moore

collage and lyrics by Wesley Moore