The Casual Blog

Tag: mindfulness meditation

The Eno at the end of fall, meditating, a piano lesson, and a list of thought-provoking books

With a big winter storm on the way, on Saturday I drove over to Durham and hiked along the Eno River on the Cole Mill trail. The colors were muted, and I was reminded of that melancholy tune by the Mamas and the Papas:  “All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray.”  It was quiet, except for the noise of the fast-moving water.  

I’d brought along my camera equipment, planning to make some landscape images, but struggled to get inspired.  Things didn’t seem at all scenic, and in fact seemed kind of sad. But after a bit I slowed down and started noticing spots of unusual energy, like tree roots and branches, decaying stumps and pale lichens on boulders.  The shots here are what developed.

Taking in smaller wonders is one of the lessons I’ve taken from my efforts at mindfulness meditation.  Over the last few months, my 15 minutes of daily sitting have helped with managing stress, and also has given me some meaningful, though humbling, insights into my own unruly thinking processes.  I’m looking forward to learning more.

On Saturday afternoon I had a piano lesson with Olga Kleiankina over at the N.C. State music department.  As I’ve noted before, I usually think of my piano playing as music therapy, providing personal balance, flow, and happiness, without many connections to my professional or social life.  But Olga always reminds me that piano playing is also a serious undertaking, with long traditions, deep musical questions, and technical challenges that are not easily surmounted, as well as the potential for personal expression, communicating feelings, and transcendent beauty.  

This week I played a well-loved Chopin waltz (c# minor, Op. 64, no. 2).  I arrived with a good mastery of the notes and a decent understanding of the architecture.  She wanted me to incorporate some new gestural elements to improve the sound, and explained to me how she uses the legs and core for fine keyboard control.  I also played Debussy’s beautiful Bruyeres from Preludes, book 2. We talked about varying tone colors and voicing (both horizontally and vertically), and specialized pedaling challenges.  The lesson was almost two hours, and I was exhausted at the end, but also inspired.

Last week I was telling a friend about rereading (actually, re-listening to) Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He noted that in the last couple of years I’d mentioned several books that relate to his interests in evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy, and asked if I’d mind making a list of favorites.  

So I looked over what I’d read involving science topics and other big ideas in the last couple of years, and realized, it’s a lot!  For whatever it’s worth, here is a selection of books I found worthwhile and would be happy to discuss with other readers. I have not attempted to rank them, but they are roughly grouped by major subject.  

Science matters, mainly in the areas of physics, biology (including neuroscience), and psychology

The Greatest Story Ever Told — So Far:  Why Are We Here? By Lawrence Krauss

Origin Story:  A Big History of Everything, by David Christian

The Big Picture:  On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll

I Contain Multitudes:  The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong

The Moral Animal:  The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, by Robert Wright

How Emotions Are Made:  The Secret Life of the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Behave:  The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky

Before You Know It:  The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh

The Knowledge Illusion:  Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins, by Jonathan Balcombe

Other Minds:  The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith

The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben

Half-Earth:  Our Planet’s Fight for Life, by Edward O. Wilson

Assorted Other Interesting Ideas

The Patterning Instinct:  A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, by Jeremy Lent

The Shape of the New:  Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World, by Scott Montgomery and Daniel Chirot

Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari

On Tyranny:  Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, by Timothy Snyder

The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, by Daniel Ellsberg

Why Buddhism Is True:  The Science and Philosophy of  Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

Scary stuff: Dracula, the ballet, and Ebola, the hysteria

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In general, I have very little interest in ghosts, ghouls, witches, vampires, and suchlike. There are enough truly scary things in the world that are real (e.g. global warming, thermonuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and tainted food from factory farms, to name a few). So it puzzles me a little that people spend mental energy scaring themselves with made-up monsters. Maybe it’s something like the fun/fear of riding the thrill rides at the fair (which I’m also over).

So, as much as I adore the Carolina Ballet, I was not eagerly anticipating Dracula, which we saw Saturday night. It is certainly not pure ballet. But boy, is it sexy! There was a good amount of stimulating vampire vamping, and even some touching dancing.

Marcelo Martinez was muscular and mesmerizing as Count D, and Lara O’Brien was a delicate, then demonic, Lucy. The marvelous Pablo Javier Perez played perhaps the scariest character, Renfeld the lunatic, who eats flies, prowls, and watches with superhuman intensity. The Twisted Sisters (Dracula’s harem, I guess) – Randi Osetek, Sarah Newton, Elizabeth Ousley – were naughty and highly exotic. I also particularly enjoyed the dancing of Elice McKinley and Nikolai Smirnov as Colette and Jack — sweet, innocent, loving mortals.

The other work on the program, The Masque of the Red Death, is based on the E.A. Poe story about a ball in a time of plague. The costumes for the costume ball were particularly sumptuous. Richard Krusch was the Red Death. He is a really fine dancer, but of extremely serious mien; he usually looks like he isn’t having any fun at all. But this was not a problem in this role, in which he wears a skull mask.

The dance of death/plague theme seemed timely, and a little jarring, after weeks of daily headlines about the Ebola virus in Africa, and also (a couple of cases) in the U.S. It is sad for the victims and their loved ones, but it strikes me that the media frenzy is out of all reasonable proportion. How many more people are dying daily of AIDS? Or the flu? Or car accidents, for that matter? Plainly, this is a dangerous bug, and we need to watch and take care, but why try to get more scared than necessary?

As I mentioned last week, I’m trying to spend a few minutes every day doing mindfulness meditation. The basic idea, which is well described in this short infographic is to sit quietly, focus on breathing, and observe what’s happening with your thoughts. It’s simple, but not easy.

By coincidence, Scientific American, which arrived this week, has a cover story on the neuroscience of meditation. The headline is that there is substantial research showing that it improves focus, reduces stress, and has other positive health effects. It also can boost feelings of well-being, and improve empathy and compassion.

The story doesn’t mention this, but I’m hopeful that if meditation helps us understand our thought processes, it might improve our ability to distinguish between imaginary threats and real ones, and apply our energy to problems we might be able to solve.
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