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The price paid in heartaches, by Trent Fowler

March 25, 2012
The Vortex Collision BANG!, by Geograph.org.uk

“Poetry can be used to express the development of humans through the deep time of evolution or the birth of the universe as readily as it can be used to detail the adventures of Odysseus.”

This week is a first for HP: naturalistic poetry.  Art and science meld in Trent’s fresh and original style.

The Price Paid in Heartaches

Days like today always made
her feel like the atoms in her body were drifting apart.
Her eyes were pools that reflected the sky,
her body another wind-kissed wildflower.

Smells reached her from the surrounding trees
in the seconds after she settled into the grassy hillside.
They bypassed the switchboard in her brainstem and
went straight to their task of resurrecting memories.
Like the breeze that ran its fingers through her hair,
these memories floated from her hippocampus
and reminded her what her ten-year-old toes had felt
as they wiggled in the grass.

The same grass she was laying in now.
She had been coming to this hillside to watch this spectacle for
years, waiting for the moment when
the great fortresses of clouds would quietly surrender
the evening sky to the stars.
It hadn’t happened yet.
The sun was still a god bathing
in the reds and oranges of twilight and casting it’s hues
across the firmament.

As her hands were in a Whitman verse,
sweeping slowly over the blades of grass,
her eyes were in a Monet piece,
watching the watercolored splendor being born.

The words, unbidden, rose:

To be the Earth, and all that’s in it,
sing it with your bones,

To be the Sky, and it’s farthest limits,
where truths sleep unknown.

To be the bridge that lies between them,
a lovely little spark,

To be the face where they interface,
flickers in the dark.

She settled deeper into the stillness
and pushed her fingertips into the roots of grass.
Her breaths created a kind of rhythm with the
rising of her rib cage, a steady pulse that marked
the cadence of her thoughts.

She had the sense that she was slowly occupying more space,
like a liquid moved into a new container,
she was spreading into a different shape.
The grass seemed so much closer now,
the wildflowers were getting taller.

She thought about what she was before she was born.
The atoms that made her had been
reincarnated an incalculable number of times
since the beginning of time.
Maybe she’d been part of a dinosaur or a maple tree;
Maybe she’d been thrown into the void by the violent death of a star;
Maybe she had pumped life through
an animal as a heart valve,
or animated it as an axon.

A wordless soliloquy wrought in her synapses read:

I’ll be the Earth, and all that’s in it,
I’ll sing it with my bones,

I’ll be the Sky, and it’s farthest limits,
where truths sleep unknown.

I’ll be the bridge that lies between them,
a lovely little spark,

I’ll be the face where they interface,
a flicker in the dark.

She knew suddenly that she was like
eyes that caught light
or hands that made mirrors.
She was how the universe watched itself,
how the sun knew it’s glory
and the moon its austere beauty.

She was a fractal,
an evanescent pattern pondering patterns
and carbon contemplating carbon.
She was a strange loop in a universe with a
resounding sense of humor.
Part and parcel and the whole besides,
she was a house made of matter
where consciousness rented a room.
The price paid in heartaches,
tears shed, and existential angst
was steep, but the view couldn’t be beat.

Feeling the light at the end of the ego tunnel,
she noticed that her breaths had stretched into
minutes and she was losing any sense of self.
She exhaled one last time, melting into the breeze,
and the music of the spheres framed the words:

We are the Earth, and all that’s in it,
sing it with our bones,

We are the Sky, and it’s farthest limits,
where truths sleep unknown.

We are the bridge that lies between them,
lovely little sparks,

We are the face where they interface,
flickers in the dark.

A word from the author

Can science be beautiful?

When I first began to think seriously about consciousness, the idea that the mind might be reducible to chemical changes in the brain struck me as dehumanizing and ugly.  You mean all my hopes, dreams, aspirations, talents, fears, and weaknesses, indeed the sum total of all that makes me human might be nothing more than ions sloshing around in a three pound piece of meat?  I don’t think I’m alone in this.  It seems like many people’s initial reaction to this brand of reductionism is outright rejection and, despite the fact that I was (and still am) a physicalist, unconvinced that the mind can be anything but the brain, I still shared their reticence.  There was a lot of cognitive dissonance going on back in those days.

This reaction, in some cases at least, seems to generalize into a broader hunch that somehow science and humanness are incompatible.  In debates I usually be sure to point out that “I don’t like that answer” doesn’t change whether the answer is correct or not.  But another way to address this uneasiness with a scientific worldview is to demonstrate that the uneasiness is baseless to begin with.  The truth is, there are some magnificent vistas to be found within science.  Going back to the example of consciousness, I believe the notion that I’m a stable pattern in a sea of entropy, a glimmer of light that somehow shines from within a seething mass of neurons, couldn’t be more beautiful.  No dualism or fairy dust necessary.  Contemplating how matter becomes mind leaves me with a sense of intellectual vertigo which has to be experienced to be appreciated, and reminds me that reality isn’t just stranger than I imagine, it’s stranger than I can imagine.

Though I’ve only briefly discussed scientific beauty through the lens of neuroscience, it works for other branches of science as well.  Evolutionary biology, particle physics, thermodynamics, psychology, even economics, they’re all beautiful in their own way.  Far from being dehumanizing, science places humans squarely in the unimaginable infinity of the universe, helps us understand ourselves and the world better, and furnishes us with the single best means of attaining truth and improving our material circumstances ever devised.  I think if more people understood how awe-inspiring an honest look at nature can be, we would have a lot fewer attempts to desperately ram a creator god into the foundations of existence.

Why poetry?

Poetry and narrative have long been tools by which humans pass down information and organize the most important principles in their lives.  I don’t know whether or not epic poetry is considered a human universal, but it’s damn sure prevalent.  Many are the tribes of Man that have told the stories or their cultures, their peoples, their heroes, their villains, and their gods through verse.  There is something about the lyrical quality of poetry which makes it deeply resonant with human psychology; some combination of rhythm, rhyme, imagery, and word play makes poetic themes easier to remember and easier to assimilate.  And though poetry often deals with mythical or supernatural themes, I see no reason why it must be this way.  Surely poetry can be used to express the development of humans through the deep time of evolution or the birth of the universe as readily as it can be used to detail the adventures of Odysseus.

The author

Trent Fowler

Trent Fowler is an English teacher in South Korea.  He graduated with a degree in Psychology from Hendrix college, where he also studied philosophy and neuroscience, among other things.  Though he considers himself a staunch atheist, he is still very much interested in ritual, meditation, and various religious practices which can serve as a means for exploring and changing consciousness.  As a writer, he has worked for numerous websites, blogs, and small businesses.  He also enjoys hiking, playing guitar, dabbling in electronics with mixed results, and learning everything he can about anything he can.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. Rua Lupa permalink
    March 25, 2012 11:45 am

    Beautiful Poem Trent! It brings me back to so many memories of laying outside and soaking everything in – surprisingly the most memorable was doing that in the middle of a snow storm and thinking it was great :D

    The mention of the brain and how it is viewed and how wonderful it can be if looked at a certain way made me think back to Symphony of Science’s “Ode to the Brain” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JB7jSFeVz1U&feature=player_embedded

    So awe provoking! Just like your poem.

    “I think if more people understood how awe-inspiring an honest look at nature can be, we would have a lot fewer attempts to desperately ram a creator god into the foundations of existence.”

    And though poetry often deals with mythical or supernatural themes, I see no reason why it must be this way. Surely poetry can be used to express the development of humans through the deep time of evolution or the birth of the universe as readily as it can be used to detail the adventures of Odysseus.

    Yes, I feel much the same. Having mentioned in a different article that when ritual is made we can have all the elements that move us without needing to mention any deity to have that connecting and awe inspiring experience with Nature. There is much that could be gained through that without having to lose anything in the process.

    “The land where I stand is an alter, my reverence being directed to all I appreciate around me. Sing songs, pour libations acknowledging our appreciation of the source of it and how it must always return. Dance and feast in celebration!”

    Although I think that you could write it in a much more effective way :)

    Do you do any rituals like this? I’d love to hear them if you do!

    Could I post your poem and following words on the Ehoah Website? (will keep full rights and credit)

    • Rua Lupa permalink
      March 26, 2012 8:40 pm

      *You will keep full rights & credit
      (I think that makes more sense now :D )

      • Trent permalink
        March 27, 2012 1:35 am

        Thanks for your comments, Rua!

        I’m toying with the idea of exploring applied ritual, but regret to say I haven’t taken the plunge other than some light meditation here and there. Brandon and I are both in South Korea teaching, there are lots of mountains and forests, and summer is coming up, so maybe he would be willing to walk me through the beginnings of developing a practice.

        I don’t have a problem with you reposting my writing. Any objections Brandon?

        • March 27, 2012 2:51 am

          >I don’t have a problem with you reposting my writing. Any objections Brandon?

          No problem at all! Re-post away!

        • March 27, 2012 2:59 am

          And, yeah, Trent, we can definitely meet up and try a few things out – whatever you’re up for. :-)

          • Trent Fowler permalink
            March 27, 2012 10:56 am

            I think we should just start with a gentle introduction to the basics of ritual, perhaps couched in a weekend of hiking. We could move on to something a bit more advanced around a major natural holiday sometime in the future, if that sounds good.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              March 27, 2012 1:12 pm

              Oh, could there be a Trent and B.T. experience series? I’d like to see that!

              And Thanks for letting me share Trent! :D

            • Trent Fowler permalink
              March 28, 2012 4:10 am

              I’d be down. Maybe do a “first steps into mysticism” series.

    • April 1, 2012 5:42 pm

      Rua:
      >So to you, Mysticism means developing other states of mind to better contemplate subjects of interest?

      I don’t usually use that term, and I don’t want to claim a territory that I’ll be held to later. As meanings are multiple and often situation/context-dependent, I’d rather leave it fluid.

      That said, here’s a particularly useful typology of three “religious experience” terms from Loyal Rue:

      1) “Mystical experiences are characterized by the annihilation of conscious distinctions between subject and object, self and world. The mystic enters into an altered state of pure unified consciousness wherein all reality, the self included, is immediately and blissfully apprehended as essential oneness.”

      2) “In numinous experiences, the subject-object distinction is preserved, even amplified, as the subject is filled with intense love and peace that comes with a sense of the presence of a holy and awesome transcendent power.”

      3) “Visionary, or prophetic, experiences are often characterized by a trance-like state in which the seer receives a concrete message or vision communicated directly from an irresistible transcendent source.”

      (All from Loyal Rue, Religion Is Not About God, p. 133)

      • Rua Lupa permalink
        April 1, 2012 6:58 pm

        Ah, I see the meaning. I wonder at the choice of using ‘transcendent’ though – if the meaning is meant to be subtle suggestion of seemingly outside oneself, but not; or as literally outside ones self.

        From the definition I asked of mysticism, I thought that meditation would of been the better word for it, but wanted to know if it was different from meditation or interrelated in your view. Which seems to be the later.

  2. March 25, 2012 3:48 pm

    Trent, do you think the subjective experience described in your poem could be fully explained by a neuropsychologist in the objective terms of chemical interactions? It seems to me that the mind/brain debate arises because both sides are talking about the same thing, but from different perspectives–one subjective and one objective. And it is the subjective perspective that is humanizing–because it is our subjectivity that makes us human, not our chemical composition. Jung wrote about “the mysterious truth that spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body the outer
    manifestation of the living spirit—the two being really one”. Mind and brain may two ways of talking about the same thing ultimately, but to treat them the same is to reduce the experience of a symphony to the notes on a musical score, or to reduce the mystical experience described in your poem to the neuroscientist’s observation that a certain part of the brain that maintains the perceived boundaries between self and world can be suppressed to create the experience of oceanic consciousness. The latter statement is true, just as it is true to say that a musical score *is* Pachelbel’s Canon, but it can’t be said to be a complete account of the phenomenon without the subjective experience. Would you agree?

    • Trent permalink
      March 27, 2012 2:00 am

      John,

      These are deep questions, and I appreciate your thoughts. The short answer is that subjective experience cannot currently be captured by objective descriptions of brain activity, and any account of the universe which doesn’t mention subjective experience is going to be impoverished, at least for now. I once argued at length that a lot of progress could be made in neuroscience if we took the development of introspective technologies as seriously as we did the development of FMRIs.

      Before venturing some wild speculation, I want to try and keep a couple of different questions and points out in the open. The first thing we need to pay attention to is what we think the ontological status of the mind actually is. In my opinion, yes, I am completely reducible to biochemical activity in the brain. I won’t cite long arguments in favor of this becuase I don’t have anything startling to add to the debate. It turns out that you can produce replicable changes in the mind by changing the brain and vice versa. Add in the interaction problem with dualism and I think we have a strong case for physicalism being true. This is where my usual quibbles are, and the audience to which the poem was directed. A large swath of people evidently believe that unless they are some magical force beyond the physical then there just isn’t any point to life. I beg to differ.

      The second thing we need to keep in mind is that there may always be different ways of describing the universe, particularly those parts of the universe in which “the lights are turned on”. This is distinct from the first question. The mind can be completely reducible to the brain, in principle, without our description of subjectivity being reducible to our objective descriptions of the brain, in principle. In the philosophy of mind this position usually goes by the name “mysterianism”, and while I doubt the strong versions of their arguments on conceptual grounds, I think there is some merit in their position. For better or worse, we’re stuck for the time being with two accounts of our mental lives, one subjective and one objective.

      Now here is where things start to get interesting. Could we unite the objective and subjective descriptions of reality, and if so, what would that look like?! What sort of language might we use, what sort of notation? What could it possibly mean for me to say “I feel the bounds of my ego dissolving” and it mean the exact same thing as a printout from a computer? I personally can’t even begin to imagine what the conflagration of objective and subjective descriptions might look like. Paul Churchland has ventured to guess in some of his writing in support of eliminative materialism, and while it is completely speculative, it is fascinating nonetheless.

      Again, I appreciate your comments.

      • March 27, 2012 8:10 am

        Thanks for your response Trent.

        You wrote: “The mind can be completely reducible to the brain, in principle, without our description of subjectivity being reducible to our objective descriptions of the brain, in principle.” That is perfectly phrased I think. Thanks for that. I agree and I may have to quote you sometime.

        What are “introspective technologies”?

        I’m going to have to Paul Churchland. Thanks!

        • Trent Fowler permalink
          March 27, 2012 10:55 am

          Introspective technologies are essentially first-person methods by which humans may access and change their internal mental states. From a philosophical point of view introspection can be a concept which is difficult to get purchase on, and from a clinical point of view we know that people are reliably terrible at introspection while being blind to their own deficit. So we need to move forward cautiously. But neither of these lines of evidence suggests to me that introspection isn’t a valuable skill which can and should be cultivated.

          In the aforementioned paper I advanced the view that, for the foreseeable future, humans are stuck with two descriptions of mental life. On the one hand, we have subjective experience, on the other, brain scans and lesion studies. While the methodology we use to to explore the objective side of consciousness, and the vocabulary by which we describe it, have grown be leaps and bounds, the same cannot be said for our study of the subjective side of consciousness. This is an asymmetry which is holding us back, or so I believe. If we could somehow develop a way of digging down and feeling out how (for example) different shades of happiness feel, we could correlate these with ever-more nuanced descriptions of brain activity.

          Whether or not all people feel happiness, sadness, or even the color red the same way or not is of course an open question. But I don’t see any a priori reason to assume there won’t be broad similarities which permit the development of a human-universal vocabulary of subjectivity; after all, we all have cerebellums, but we all have idiosyncrasies in our motor patterns. That hasn’t stopped us from beginning to understand the human-universal architecture of the brain.

          B. Allan Wallace (with whom I have many philosophical disagreements) writes compellingly about the development of an “introspective telescope” which would allow us to peer deep into the psyche with a clarity and stillness analogous to the views of space allowed by the telescope. I’m sure the analogy would break down in all sorts of places if pushed, but it’s enough to start groping in the right direction. He envisions using something like the Buddhist practice of Samatha to create a rock-hard lens of attention, which would then be turned to scrutinizing every little flitter of consciousness.

          • Rua Lupa permalink
            March 27, 2012 4:40 pm

            This sure gets the grey matter working! The subjective aspect can be very broad and am wondering what direction is intended? What are the goals?

            I am kind of partial to emotional affects and responses for social situations – i.e. aiding grief through funeral rituals, bonding with new family members (whether new born, an older adopted child, or discovery of a new relation) when introduced to the family like in reunions and other family events etc.

            And for other things like causing motivation or feeling more energized.

            Thoughts?

            • Trent Fowler permalink
              March 29, 2012 12:35 am

              “The subjective aspect can be very broad and am wondering what direction is intended? What are the goals? ”

              Well, pretty much the same as with the development of any other technology. We want to understand our internal landscape better so we know how to navigate to continents of happiness and fulfillment rather than ones of misery and sorrow. I feel like our maps of psychology are still stuck in the dark ages, with everything misshaped and dragons in the oceans. But we’re getting closer; we’ve started to develop the equivalent of compasses and telescopes.

          • March 28, 2012 8:39 am

            >from a clinical point of view we know that people are reliably terrible at introspection while being blind to their own deficit.

            Good point. The “introspection illusion” is a fascinating phenomenon (easy to google, if interested). We easily confabulate fictional reasons to explain our behavior, believe things one way while behaving another, and so on.

            This is one reason why I started talking of the “Five +1″ (five empirical senses plus one introspective sense) – to try to encourage “seeing” mental objects for what they are, rather than confabulating ideas about them without really perceiving them directly.

            I haven’t written enough about it yet, but developing a firm grounding in directly perceiving mental objects is so key to understanding how speaking to the figures of myth can work in a naturalistic context – you can have a relationship with a mental phenomenon without it needing an objective-world referent outside your head.

            >But I don’t see any a priori reason to assume there won’t be broad similarities which permit the development of a human-universal vocabulary of subjectivity.

            Yes! I’ve encountered some interesting developments in that direction in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science. There have been cross-cultural studies of emotion that try to find which ones are universal and which are more culturally dependent. The list varies, but it’s usually a pretty short list of 8-10 basic emotions.

            Loyal Rue takes this kind of research and develops it into a visionary synthesis. For example, for emotions he distinguishes “primary emotions” (biological and common across mammal species), “secondary emotions” (mainly biological, but involving the influence of a self-concept), and even “tertiary emotions” (biological at base but heavily modified and combined via cultural influences). I can’t rave enough. It’s all in his book Religion Is Not About God. I have a review of it due to be published here in a few weeks.

            Anyway, Rue gives one of the first truly usable ways to understand one’s own introspective experience that I’ve encountered outside of Buddhism (which also provides incredibly useful insight in that direction).

            • Trent Fowler permalink
              March 29, 2012 12:46 am

              “We easily confabulate fictional reasons to explain our behavior, believe things one way while behaving another, and so on.”

              Yes, confabulation is what I had in mind, but the list goes on and on.

              “you can have a relationship with a mental phenomenon without it needing an objective-world referent outside your head.”

              I saw that in your last big essay, it’s an interesting idea. I think you’re right, and there’s a lot of room to expand on the notion. Perhaps meditation could be viewed as a content-independent way of developing the sort of firm grasp on mental phenomena you’re talking about. Some form of meditation is pretty much a universal in religions, correct? Could that be because it’s an essential precursor to mystical practice?

              On a related note, there is a pretty famous temple not far from where we live. They have weekend meditation retreats you can go on; I’ve already started looking into it, and I’ll let you know what I come up with.

              “I’ve encountered some interesting developments in that direction in evolutionary psychology and cognitive science”

              Evo Psych and Cross-cultural psych are where I got a lot of this. I haven’t read any of Rue’s research, but it sounds really interesting. I’ll be sure and check out your book review!

            • March 29, 2012 2:27 am

              >Perhaps meditation could be viewed as a content-independent way of developing the sort of firm grasp on mental phenomena you’re talking about. Some form of meditation is pretty much a universal in religions, correct? Could that be because it’s an essential precursor to mystical practice?

              On a general level, yes, I think so. “Meditation” is another one of those words with a lot of different meanings, and a million and one different styles, (so is “mystical”), but generally yes. If by meditation one means a technique of learning to attend to one’s internal, subjective states, and if by mysticism one means learning to cultivate profound, unusual states of consciousness in relation to some object of ultimate concern, then I think meditation is a crucial precursor to mystical practice.

            • Trent Fowler permalink
              March 29, 2012 3:56 am

              That’s more or less exactly what I mean by both of those terms.

            • Trent Fowler permalink
              March 29, 2012 8:55 am

              Clarity in discussions of philosophical and religious ideas FTW.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              March 30, 2012 12:42 pm

              >“Meditation” is another one of those words with a lot of different meanings, and a million and one different styles, (so is “mystical”)

              So for clarity, what is your meaning for mystical?

            • March 30, 2012 8:10 pm

              >So for clarity, what is your meaning for mystical?

              I just said it above in the same comment.

            • Rua Lupa permalink
              April 1, 2012 9:18 am

              >if by mysticism one means learning to cultivate profound, unusual states of consciousness in relation to some object of ultimate concern

              I read that as “if by mysticism one means” not that it was your meaning of it and that you could have other associated meanings as well.

              So to you, Mysticism means developing other states of mind to better contemplate subjects of interest?

      • March 27, 2012 8:11 am

        You wrote: “Could we unite the objective and subjective descriptions of reality, and if so, what would that look like?!”

        I think you poem is a step in the that direction. Thank you for sharing.

        • Trent Fowler permalink
          March 27, 2012 10:58 am

          Thank you for reading.

  3. March 26, 2012 6:28 am

    I like this better every time I read it.

    I especially like this part:

    She thought about what she was before she was born.
    The atoms that made her had been
    reincarnated an incalculable number of times
    since the beginning of time.
    Maybe she’d been part of a dinosaur or a maple tree;
    Maybe she’d been thrown into the void by the violent death of a star;
    Maybe she had pumped life through
    an animal as a heart valve,
    or animated it as an axon.

    I have had that experience so many times! To contemplate how I am composed of matter that has existed since the beginning of time, never destroyed but only changing shape… The conscious personality is extinguished at death, but matter “lives” on immortally…

    Perhaps that is also one of the big appeals of the Epic of Evolution for me. In the sense that we’re talking about here, big history is *my* history, the genealogy of my atoms, as it were. It is the song of what I have been all these many long eons.

    This is also how I like to naturalistically interpret the Song of Amergin – at one time or another, the atoms that compose have likely been part of nearly everything else you can name, or will in the future…

    I am the wind on the sea
    I am the wave of the sea
    I am the bull of seven battles
    I am the eagle on the rock
    I am a flash from the sun
    I am the most beautiful of plants
    I am a strong wild boar
    I am a salmon in the water
    I am a lake in the plain
    I am the word of knowledge
    I am the head of the spear in battle
    I am the God that puts fire in the head
    Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?
    Who can tell the ages of the moon?
    Who can tell the place where the sun rests?

    • Trent permalink
      March 27, 2012 2:01 am

      Very cool, Brandon. I hadn’t heard of this song before, but it’s very resonant with what I’ve written here. Glad to hear you’re liking my work :)

  4. Rua Lupa permalink
    March 27, 2012 9:26 pm

    What was the date you wrote this poem on? Also, can I use the author bio too?

    • Trent Fowler permalink
      March 27, 2012 9:56 pm

      Hmmm, it was sometime in February of this year. Maybe the 15th? Just a guess, but it should be close enough. And yes, you can use the author bio.

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