Some Positive News for the Week

There were a few bright spots in the news this week:

  1. Clinical trials for another possible vaccine began in London a few days ago.

This article from the BBC also points out that there are already 120 coronavirus vaccines at different stages of development around the world. 13 of which are already in clinical trials (five in China, three in the United States, two in the UK, one in Australia, Germany and Russia). An effective vaccine is the only thing that will return our lives to normal and it’s encouraging to see so much progress being made. Perhaps a vaccine before the end of the year is possible after all.

2. The ‘Heard immunity‘ threshold could be lower than expected:

Although not the preferred method of dealing with the virus, researchers have calculated that the previously thought percentage of 60% could be as low as 43%. No idea how this is measured but I’ll take the good news where I find it!

3. Lastly, in a real shot of good news, Trump’s re-election prospects are starting to look grim. It seems that Trump’s towering incompetence is finally (!) being reflected in public opinion. And yes we remember what the polls predicted in 2016 but this article in explained why these polls may be more accurate.

Enjoy the weekend.

Great Waves

Spending time with the ‘Oceanic Meditation’ this week, reminded me of a story.

huge wave | Waves, Ocean waves, Japan

My best friend and I busked through Europe for a couple of years in the late 90s and during the trip I was gifted a pocket-sized book: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. It was the only book I could afford to carry and it nestled in beside the spare strings in my guitar case. It’s a collection of Zen wisdom, parables and stories — perfect for contemplation under the stars while camping.

There’s a story in the book called ‘Great Waves‘:

Long ago there lived a famous wrestler whose name meant “Great Waves.” He was massively strong and knew the art of wrestling. In private bouts he defeated even his teacher, yet in public was so bashful that even his students threw him down.

Troubled, the wrestler decided to visit a Zen temple for help. There, a wise teacher advised him.

“Great Waves is your name,” said the teacher. “So spend tonight in the temple. Imagine that you are water. You are no longer a wrestler who is afraid. You are those powerful waves sweeping over everything in sight. Do this and you will never again be defeated.”

The teacher left. The wrestler sat still, trying to imagine himself as water. His mind wandered but soon he began to feel more and more like moving waves. As night advanced the waves grew taller and taller. They swept away the flowers and rushed over the statues. Before dawn the temple was nothing but the tide of a vast ocean.

In the morning the teacher found the wrestler in meditation with a slight smile on his face. He patted the man’s shoulder. “Now nothing can disturb you,” he said. “You are those waves. You will sweep everything before you.”

The same day the wrestler entered and won a prestigious tournament, and was never defeated again.

Great Waves- Zen Flesh; Zen Bones.

I always enjoyed ‘O-Nami’ and his great waves. It continues to remind me of the fact that most of the greatest trials we wrestle with in our lives are of our own making, unseen by others, and yet…there’s always hope for a breakthrough.

What became of my copy of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones? It’s right here, in all its well-worn glory!

Book 25: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology’ is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the essential Norse myths.

Gaiman took 8 years to research the 12 myths in Norse Mythology. He wanted to introduce lesser known Gods of the Norse pantheon but the lack of available source materials centre the tales around the adventures of Thor, Odin and Loki, Freyr, Freyja and Baldr.

Highlights include ‘The Children of Loki’ and ‘Thor’s Journey into the Land of the Giants’ —but throughout you get Gaiman, the master storyteller that he is, infusing timeless myths with his trademark style. These are stories to be enjoyed and as they come from a long oral tradition, listened to. Gaiman himself reads the audiobook and does a terrific job. I listened to these stories on the excellent Scribd.

This is (almost) suitable for the whole family though there’s some violence, darkness and mead drinking. Children (and adults!) old enough to enjoy Gaiman’s ‘Stardust’ or ‘Coraline’ would particularly enjoy these tales.


Oceanic Meditation

Metaphors and analogies can be useful in understanding how the mind works in meditation.

Here’s one to try:

  1. Sit

2. Imagine your mind/consciousness as the ocean

3. Use these three concepts to help:

  • ‘Boundless’ – keep awareness wide and notice the lack of boundaries to consciousness. Take in the expansiveness. The ocean too is unbounded.
  • ‘Deep’ – bringing to mind the depths of the ocean encourages a ‘sinking’ sensation. Use the breath to help ground, centre and relax the body.
  • ‘Silent’ – the immersive quality of water quietens the mind when awareness stays wide

4. Spend time cycling these thoughts: Keeping awareness wide and expansive; using the breath to sink and centre; inviting silence

5. Now introduce ‘waves’ — which are anything you can experience (thoughts, sounds, sensations, feelings). Waves are made of the ocean just as experience is made of consciousness.

6. Sounds work best as the ‘deep’ sinking will place sounds (waves) above you — as they are in the ocean. Also because they are unbidden and transitory, sounds are easier to place in the metaphor.

7. You can experiment with sensations and later thoughts, which can be thought of as a type of temporary turbulence in the ocean deep.

8. If attention becomes too diffuse or you become distracted go back to 3.

Just writing here to consolidate a process I’ve been experimenting with — the point is to identify with the prior state of consciousness which is the stuff of every experience we will ever have.

I passed through several other concept words getting to these (dark, silent, slow, immersive, peaceful etc) but eventually landed on the three above. Change them to your preference. In any case, after a few days of practice, bringing to mind the particular ‘oceanic’ state gets easier. I’ve found this technique to be immediately and surprisingly useful. Often we hear thoughts compared to clouds passing across the sky of the mind, but this ocean analogy has more practical application —for me at least. You own milage may vary!

Nick Cave’s Top 40 Books

Everyone loves a good book list.

In the last issue (#101) of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Hand Files’ he gives us his top 40:

Scanning through I’ve only read a few— many of the titles (and their authors!) I have never even heard of.

A few stood out though. I noticed David Whyte’s ‘Consolations’. He has a new series of meditations called ‘Contemplative Action’ up on the Waking Up App. These short sessions, where he reads (what a voice!) and discusses a poem have been a fine introduction to his work and quite an inspiration. I recently ordered one of his collections.

The list was also a reminder to pick up some Chekhov short stories, which I’ve been long meaning to buy.

I wanted to buy something ‘new’ from the list and chose William Faulkner’s ‘Sanctuary’. It looked exactly like the type of thing you’d expect Nick Cave to be reading (dark, seedy, disturbing) so I’ll see how I get on with it.

For my part, I can wholeheartedly recommend Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ — a transformative book if ever there was one. Any recommendations you might have from the list would be gratefully received!

A Song for Sunday with Bob Dylan

Dylan’s new album ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ was released a couple of days ago to fanfare in the music press.

Bob Dylan Announces New Album, Shares New Song “False ...

The three tracks he pre-released had people hoping for something special and something special this is. Right from the first listen, this feels like a great album. I’ve been enjoying it as much as I enjoyed Dylan’s Grammy winning ‘Time out of mind’ on release, and that’s saying something.

Turn this track up loud to see what I mean:

The Power of Expectations

Stradivarius violins are exceedingly rare and expensive instruments that command eye-watering prices when they come up for sale. I’ve written about them before (here).

In this first video, the mayor of Bergamo brings a $15 million Stradivarius to a prospective buyer for evaluation:

Under these conditions, marshalling an objective opinion of the violin would be tough don’t you think. I wondered whether this same guy could be made to look the fool by being presented with a considerably cheaper violin at the last minute? Probably. Context and expectations heavily influence the way we see things.

The reality is that our cognitive biases make truly objective opinions hard to come by. As pointed out by Dan Ariely in ‘Predictably Irrational’ people general get what they expect they’ll get. When the cues are hidden, as in blind testing, even experts can be easily embarrassed.

Take the experiment the Washington Post ran in 2007 (you can read the article here). They enlisted virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell to play his Stradivarius in the Washington Underground for 90 minutes. They wanted to see what whether the commuters’ expectations of just another ‘busker’ could be overturned.

Could the great Joshua Bell, incognito, the draw an audience of unsuspecting commuters?

Donna Tartt on Charles Portis

In this recent article in the New York Times, the outrageously talented Donna Tart writes about one of her literary heroes. It’s a delightful read — a love letter of sorts, to one of America’s greats: the late Charles Portis.

Tart herself won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for ‘The Goldfinch’ (which remains about the best thing I’ve ever read) so the effortless quality of the writing on display comes as no surprise.

I bought 5 Portis books on the recent Kindle Store sale so this article was a welcome reminder that sent me straight to the kindle to begin ‘True Grit’:

Probably the best description I can give of “True Grit” is that I’ve never given it to any reader — male or female, of any age or sensibility — who didn’t enjoy it. As for the others, which I love just as much, they are if anything weirder and funnier, filled with some of the best and most particular American vernacular ever written, and even amid the scrape of Covid-driven anxiety they’ve convulsed me with laughter and given me some of the few moments of escape that I’ve found.

Donna Tartt on Charles Portis

This a 10-minute read and well worth your time. It may even push you to get a copy of ‘True Grit’ and if it does, let’s compare notes!

True Grit - Charles Portis (book and new movie) - Love ...

The Music of Mozart as Therapy

Having enjoyed Paul Johnson’s biography of Mozart recently, this article caught my eye.

Clinical research out of Toronto has found that Mozart’s ‘Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448’ may reduce the frequency of seizures for patients with epilepsy.

While the ‘Mozart Effect’ that sprung up in the 90s (remember all those baby CDs?) has been mostly debunked, the music of Mozart remains timeless. Perhaps in time researchers will develop a deeper understanding of the ways his music affects our physiology, but in the meantime we can simply sit back and listen.

Here’s a particularly good version of the piece cited in the research (K.488). It’s played by two brothers: Lucas & Arthur Jussen.