Signposts

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to find new music to listen to. Same goes for movies and books. There are websites that offer options like, “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” or “People who purchased C also purchased D,” and that can be helpful, but usually the recommendations are very safe, almost tentative, and the results are mediocre. A lot of the time the recommended artist or piece of media doesn’t live up to the connection.

I’m much more likely to trust a recommendation from an artist. The artists that I like (most artists, really) usually draw inspirations from other artists. So when an artist mentions a name or references a specific album or book, I try to pay attention. When there is a drought in good new music, for example, it’s easy to comb through artists I already like to find references, usually to older artists. People who create something that fits your tastes will usually have good taste themselves.

Led Zeppelin’s third album, arguably their best, ends with a song called “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”. For some reason it took me years to actually look up Roy Harper. It’s not a very popular name outside of its own niche. Roy Harper is a genius of his own variety and influenced his friend Jimmy Page. Harper’s innovative recording techniques, lyrics and intriguing decisions on albums like Lifemask or Stormcock are mind-blowing. Once I tracked it down, I took my hat off to Jimmy Page for “Hats Off to (Roy) Harper”.

But even Zeppelin fans I know claim they’ve never heard of Roy Harper. I find this strange, and it makes me wonder why it took me so long to look him up. If artists are doing something innovative and new and they go out of their way to point out an influence or inspiration, it only makes sense to pay attention. But often the references go unnoticed.

The flip-side to this is that artists often name-drop because they feel it will increase their cache. Generally, I find that if the referenced artist is a household name, you don’t need to go on the hunt. This form of name-dropping acts similarly to the “If you liked A, you’ll probably like B,” recommendations. When the band Franz Ferdinand calls their song “Ulysses”, I don’t expect their fans will run out and read Homer or James Joyce, but the reference is there as fodder for critics and nerds. That’s fine too, but it’s not as exciting as discovering some obscure gem brought to light in a conscientious way.

When the reference is little-known, my natural inclination is to investigate. When Six Organs of Admittance named an album For Octavio Paz, it got me wondering about Octavio Paz. What was it in the poetry of Paz that inspired the songs of Six Organs? It’s worth finding out.

This all happens on a conscious level. But often references aren’t as obvious as these examples. A lot of artists like to drop references more subtly, and by that I mean wordlessly. These types of references won’t put you on the lookout, but they can be much more rewarding when they are stumbled upon, like hearing John Coltrane in “Eight Miles High” by The Byrds. A lot of the time I’ll catch a connection long after the reference and it will give me a rush of enthusiasm.

Imagery in David Lynch’s films, for instance, calls up the dark mystery of the paintings of Francis Bacon. When I see certain Bacon paintings I am totally thrilled, and I can trace the aesthetic connection back to something I’m familiar with (Lynch’s films). Now I have the entire oeuvre of Francis Bacon to look into, and that’s exciting.

For years now I’ve been a sucker for spiritual literature and philosophy. There’s something about witnessing a mind groping for truth that’s exciting to me, and to an extent I think we’re all on some sort of path toward understanding our existence. So when an artist chooses to leave signposts in this direction, I am drawn in. There are spiritual guides in my life. They are usually artists, and they’ve been ushering me along a path to self-knowledge.

The albums of Bardo Pond are my favorite example. Philadelphia’s ultimate psychedelic rock group know what they are doing. Take this recent vinyl reissue of Ticket Crystals.

Bardo Pond - "Ticket Crystals"

I see this picture and it makes an impression on me. So when I stumble upon the picture in Aleister Crowley’s Book Of Lies, a little masterpiece of Kabbalistic and philosophical puzzles, I know I’m on the right path.

The Book of Lies

Their albums are full of these symbols, and whether through coincidence or conscious decision, I’ve discovered a wealth of books, movies and music to get me further down the path, or at least let me know that I’m looking in the right direction. Even if I’m not drawn in by the referenced work, at least I’m looking at something new.

It’s as though certain artists exist to act as a psychopomp. The psychopomp’s role in mythology is to guide dead souls into the afterlife. In this real world version, artists use the symbols they have at their disposal to guide people out of the mundane world into new levels of understanding. It might sound high-flown, but I’ve been on the path for a while now and it hasn’t let me down.

Disregarded in the darkness, the fact of enlightenment remained. The roaring of the engines diminished, the squeaking rhetoric lapsed into an inarticulate murmur, and as the intruding noises died away, out came the frogs again, out came the uninterruptable insects, out came the mynah birds.
     “Karuna. Karuna.” And a semitone lower, “Attention.”
- Aldous Huxley, Island

Change Your Brain – Pt. 3

It’s annoying to me when politicos criticize their opponents for “flip-flopping” on issues. Anyone actively seeking enlightenment will tell you that changing one’s mind and opinions is part of the process. It would be nice if politicians were actively seeking cultural enlightenment. Partisanship and one-sided thinking leads to a lack of adaptability.

In the early stages of successful meditation it’s common to have the realization that we are more than just our bodies. We are minds that think and feel, process information, and create new ideas. Except in reproduction and the physical activities of arts and crafts, creativity happens in the mind. Soon the meditator might feel like they are a Mind, first and foremost, that uses the body like a tool.

The belief that “I am a Mind” might lead to metaphysics, belief in God or gods and ‘upper realms’, questions of ontology, spiritism, eschatology, and all sorts of non-physical contemplations. Suddenly one might feel one is more than a mind and settle on the conclusion that “I am a spirit”. Mind and body seem like lower realms caught up in maya, the world of form and matter (in other words, the transitory illusions of everyday life).

As one’s observational powers improve, the mind-blowing successes of early meditation don’t come as often. This could easily lead the practitioner to believe that their experiences of God or higher spiritual dimensions were neurological aberrations brought on by physiological exercises. It’s common for meditators (particularly in Zen) to come back to the firm realization that “I am my body”.

Flip-flopping is part of the game of life, as all life is subject to change. The ability to change one’s mind on big-ticket ideas is actually a good thing, and I would sooner trust a politician who changes his or her mind than one who stubbornly sticks to idiotic beliefs.

A changing world needs a changing brain. Part of changing our brains is contemplating different points of view. The following points of view helped flip-flop me closer to my goal.

Raj YogaRaj Yoga by Swami Vivekananda

As far as I’ve read this is the essential book on the mental side of yoga (of which the physical yogas form only the preliminary). Vivekananda guides you right into theory and practice with direct examples and a sense of playfulness that can carry you through the various humps and dry-spells that are inevitable in this kind of activity. Compared to many of the other, older Indian books on yoga, (like the Shiva Samhita) this one has only a moderate amount of culturally-specific symbolism to decipher. It uses the analogy of the conscious mind as a monkey, jumping about from branch to branch on the tree of knowledge, squawking and eating whatever it can, but resting only in sleep. The techniques in this book can help calm that monkey down, but it goes far beyond that. This is enlightenment training. I recommend this text for anyone who wants to get serious about meditation.

 

Collected FictionsCollected Fictions by Jorges Luis Borges

While all his work seems great, I’m mostly thinking of the two short story collections called The Garden of Forking Paths and The Aleph, both of which are contained in this one handy unit. This is fiction at its most potent. When I used to read Philip K. Dick I would see a blurb on the jacket claiming that Dick was the “homegrown Borges”, and when I finally got around to reading the Argentinian-grown Borges, I found the analogy to be a good one. Reading Borges is a lesson on narrative economy and big ideas. His stories range from historical realism to mystical fable to flat-out fantasy, and his ability to condense huge ideas into short stories is unparalleled in anything I’ve read. Many feel that Borges reinvented the short story and I can see why. Because of the power and brevity, Borges offers the most bang for your buck. I recommend Borges for writers, mystics and intellectuals.

“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.” – Jorge Luis Borges, from the Afterword to The Maker

 

MagickMagick by Aleister Crowley

Aleister Crowley was a mountaineer, chess master, poet, writer, yogi, black magician, white magician, philosopher, heroin-addict, bisexual sex-addict, “wickedest man in the world”, and all around great guy. His corpus of writing is immense, and Magick might be his most comprehensive masterwork. Detailing necessary training, tools of the trade, philosophical grounding, practical techniques and mystical symbolism, this massive work gives the reader just about everything they need to start practicing real magick. So what is magick? It is the art of causing a change in conformity with the Will. Ceremonial magic has been around for thousands of years and it’s still practiced today. Even with the modern advancements of neuroscience, psychoanalysis and depth psychology, the techniques in this book remain effective. Get to know the strange agencies that live in your subconscious and affect real change in your behaviors and thoughts. The best part of this work is that Crowley tells the reader to avoid imposing any objective validity on the spirits, sephiroth, symbols and so-forth, and simply pay attention to this fact: when certain actions are performed, certain things happen. Things can get weird with this one, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who isn’t mentally and physically healthy. It is for serious students of the occult.