Culture Magazine

Border Crossings: Om, Eureka, and Beyond [Oh, I Turn 72]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon

Robert Wright has an interesting discussion about the various kinds of mystical experience with Jay Michaelson.

I read quite a bit about mystical experience in the college years - Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Zen, LSD and other psychedelics, whatever - and, at some point, concluded: These folks are not all talking about the same thing. And that's what I like about this conversation. Wright, as you may know, has gone on several meditation retreats and has written, Why Buddhism is True. Michaelson has had a variety of experiences and has just published Enlightenment by Trial and Error.

I've had an experience or two, but never assiduously pursued any form of mystical practice, though I've had experiences that haunted ME for awhile. Still, I thought it would be interesting to list some of the experiences that delimit, shall we say, the borders of my mind. Most of these are not, by any definition, mystical experiences. But then the mystical is only one kind of border. There are others.

That's the earliest memory I've got (I think), Burl Ives singing that song. I'm told I played that record over and over, on one occasion driving my visiting Uncle Harry to distraction. As I note in the preface to Beethoven's Anvil, "It is my mind's tether to history, my umbilical to the world."

Since that particular experience, driving my uncle crazy, happened at the house on Cherry Lane, I would have to have been four years old or so at the time. Isn't that a bit old for one's earliest memory? Though, come to think of it, there is an exceedingly vague impression of the house in Ellsworth, where we'd lived before moving to Cherry Lane in Johnstown, Pa.

My father built a nice sandbox in the backyard of the Cherry Lane house, large enough so that me and a friend or two could get completely inside it and play with our toys in the sand. I'd take my little cars, trucks, and men - likely other creatures as well, though I have no specific memories - and create worlds in the sand, moving them about along roads, through ravines, up hill and down. I was completely absorbed in those imagined worlds.

And then one day I wasn't. The magic no longer worked. I'd move the figures about in the sand and I knew that it was me moving them about. I was no longer absorbed by my play.

How old was I when this happened? Five, six, I don't remember. I just remember that it happened and I remember it as a single occasion, I've even got a vague impression of a green plastic man I'd been playing with. I don't vouch for the accuracy of any of this - how could I? - but there must have been such an occasion, the first time the magic failed. Did it never come back, ever, or perhaps now and then?

Baby Jesus, the infinite ray gun

We were regaled with stories about the Baby Jesus in Sunday school. That led me to my first philosophical idea, that I remember anyhow. I figured the world was a movie being shown on a giant screen for the entertainment of this Baby Jesus person. There was a problem, though. Movies are flat, but real life is not; it's thick and rounded. How's the work, we're flat for the Baby Jesus but rounded for each other (I doubt I got that far back then)?

And then there's this toy I got. We can call the Cosmic Ray Gun - I forget the real name. It had the shape of a pistol, but it didn't shoot toy bullets or even make toy noises. Rather, it was a device for projecting short film-loops on the wall. Each time you pulled the trigger it would advance the film one frame. This toy came in a box and the box cover had some lettering which proclaimed the toy's name, Cosmic Ray Gun, a picture of the toy itself, and a picture of a boy holding a box. The boy's box had some (somewhat smaller) lettering, Cosmic Ray Gun, a (somewhat smaller) picture of the toy itself, and a (somewhat smaller) picture of a boy holding the box. This regress went as far as the resolution of the image would allow, but I was just clever enough to be able to imagine it going on and on and on without discernible end.

You can see a certain similarity here, no? I'd say I was six or seven when I had these ideas.

What was there before there was something?

Somewhat later, probably when I was 11 or 12, I began wondering what existed before the universe came into being. How could something come from nothing?

And then when I was 13 or 14 I think it was I read an article in Popular Science of Mechanics Illustrated, one of those magazines, about how you could improve yourself through self-hypnosis. You just hypnotize yourself, give yourself an improving suggestion, and then come out of it, better than you were before.

I figured I'd give it a try. As I recall, which isn't much, the technique for hypnotizing yourself was simply to lie down and relax relax relax, deeply. So I gave it a try. I never got beyond a floaty feeling while being relaxed.

In my senior year at Johns Hopkins I enrolled in a two-semester course on Romantic Literature taught by (the legendary) Earl Wasserman. First we studied Keats. While writing my paper on Keats my mind snapped and I found myself reading the second stanza of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" as though the words were coming from me: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on..." How could this be? I'm me, and there's the poem in front of me, but it feels like I'm writing the words myself, though I'm writing nothing. The intention originated in me.

That one haunted me, really. I brought it up in discussion section. A graduate student was teaching it, not Wasserman, but she had nothing to say. What could she?

I wrote about this, and some of these other experiences, in my autobiographical essay, "Touchstones Strange Encounters * Strange Poems * the beginning of an intellectual life", which was originally published in Paunch (Vol. 42-43, December 1975) and then revised in online posting, here,

Shelley came after Keats. I was exhausted when I started typing my Shelley paper late at night. Something snapped, again, and the paper wrote itself, without effort. This was quite different from my Keats experience, but strange in its own way.

That was the fall of 1968. Come spring we studied Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nothing strange happened to me while writing either of those papers. But Wasserman commented that my Wordsworth paper was "a mature contemplation of the poem" - I forget which poem. That was quite a complement. I wrote my Coleridge paper on "Kubla Khan", a poem that's been with me for the rest of my life.

It surely does seem that my mind was knitting itself together during that year. I wonder if the superintelligent AGI (artificial general intelligence) of the future will have such experiences?

A year or two later I joined a rock and roll band, The Saint Matthew Passion. We were a horn band modeled after Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago (aka Chicago Transit Authority, CTA). During our very last gig we opened with our arrangement of "She's Not There". We began the tune with the horns, trumpet (that's me), trombone, and alto sax, doing a brief avant-garde freak out and then the pianist would cue the band to come in on the rest of the arrangement. The trombone playing couldn't make it.

So it was just me at the alto player. We got into it, and I mean into it. For a few seconds the world went blissfully white even as the music flowed. It was wonderful. Then it ceased, the blissful white nothing that is, and the music continued on as ususal.

THAT set me back a few. That experience haunted me for several years. "Haunt", I know, a strange word, but it seems apt. No flashbacks, nor has it ever happened again. But it kept thinking about it, couldn't NOT think about it. That told me that what the mystics talked about - when they'd talk about it at all - was true. Yes, they talked about different things, and that's OK. I figured that if THAT could spring upon me unaware, then those things could surely happen to someone who worked for it - in a nonworking way of course.

I've note that experience and several other of my musical experiences in a document where I've also collected anecdotes from other musicians, Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance, September 4, 2008,

Then in January of 1972 I took LSD for the first time. By that time I had, of course, read quite a bit about LSD, and thought a great deal about such things - just look at the strange experiences that when traipsing along with me into the acid zone. I was especially looking forward to the visions.

Nada, zilch, not a vision. Oh, I tripped out alright, for about two weeks. I didn't have any of the visions I'd been lead to believe were common. Instead, I realized that I was a culture hero destined to change the world and I did and said some strange things, like leaving a painting in Dick Macksey's doorway. I figured I'd quit the academic life - I was working on a master's degree at the time - and become a full-time musician. I realized that the spirit of Louis Armstrong, who'd died in the fall of 1971, had been reincarnated in me.

I know, it sounds crazy, and it was. Fortunately I wasn't. I came out of it after two weeks or so. I signed up for trumpet lessons at the Peabody Conservatory where I studied with Harold Rehrig, who'd played with the Philadelphia Orchestra for much of his career.

And I finished my master's thesis. I'd set out to write about Coleridge's "Kubla Khan". Things were going great, and then they fell apart. That's why I had been contemplating getting out of the academic racket all together and going into music. But, once the trumpet lessons got going I got my intellectual act together and finished thesis. It wasn't what I'd set out to write, but that was OK.

It turned out to be something new, and unexpected. So off I went to get a Ph.D. in English at the State University of Buffalo, where I hoped I could sort things about in the wake of my work on "Kubla Khan". Things did quite work out, but they nonetheless went quite well. And that leads us to the final anecdote.

Eureka! - Shakespeare's Sonnet 129

I went to Buffalo to get a degree in English, which I did. But my real education came around the seminar table chaired by David Hays. He'd been a first generation researcher in machine translation and, when that dried up for him, he founded the Linguistics Department at Buffalo. I'd been introduced to him by a fellow graduate student, Ralph Henry Reese. I spent four years working with him, and others, on computational semantics.

I'd wanted to go after "Kubla Khan", but that seemed too difficult. So I settled for a Shakespeare sonnet, the famous 129, Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame. That went well, very well. But there was one part that was troubling me, how to relate the final couplet to the first 12 lines. Then it came to me - in the sunny front room of my apartment on Callodine Avenue in Amherst - you just stick it THERE. Just what that means is a technical matter that's not easy to explain. But that explanation is not the point.

What matters is that it worked. It really did. I laughed and giggled and even pranced around a bit, jumping into the air, and having a jolly good time for a minute or two. I mean, the realization was purely intellectual, but its effect went ZAP! deep into the body.

Our culture's got a story about that kind of thing. I learned it in middle school. You know it, I'm sure.

The exclamation 'Eureka!' is attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes. He reportedly proclaimed "Eureka! Eureka!" after he had stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose, whereupon he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. [...] He then realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, a previously intractable problem. He is said to have been so eager to share his discovery that he leapt out of his bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse.

I wasn't bathing, I wasn't naked, and I didn't go running into the streets. I settled for leaping about, just a little.

But think about it. Who knows whether it actually went that way with Archimedes, but, whatever happened, it became wrapped up in the kind of story that gets told and told and told again. Why? Because it captures something that's fundamental to the societies doing the telling. Just what it that?

I went on to finish my doctorate, got an academic job, and then...Well that's a complicated story, with twists and turns.

What are we to make of this?

Well, of course, I'm still working on it. But the obvious and, it seems to me, rather banal conclusion is simply that the mind is a vast territory, unbounded and ever growing. A Hindu prince sits under a tree filled with the realization that all is suffering. He becomes enlightened, whatever that is, and cultures weave themselves around that. A Greek mathematician steps into the bath, has an idea, and shouts Eureka! Rather different cultures weave themselves around that.

And if we were to place a water-filled tub underneath Buddha's tree and dip into it in the manner of Archimedes, what then? I suppose the tub would march off and leave us there, wet and naked before the world.

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