Awareness, openness, & … magic mushrooms?

In a recent New Yorker article about potential medical uses for psilocybin (“The Trip Treatment”), science, culture, and food writer Michael Pollan interviewed researchers in neuroscience, medicine, and psychology. The medical potential of psychedelic drugs is not something I can comment on from reading just one article; what intrigued me most about this piece is how these drug studies overlap with studies on cognition, metacognition, consciousness, and spirituality. The medically-controlled “tripping” that volunteers have undergone overwhelmingly resulted in some form of what we term mystical or spiritual (for lack of a scientific term) feeling.

It’s almost impossible to consider these realms of experience without questioning concepts such as “soul” or “self-awareness.” Pollan writes:

Roland Griffiths is willing to consider the challenge that the mystical experience poses to the prevailing scientific paradigm. He conceded that “authenticity is a scientific question not yet answered” and that all that scientists have to go by is what people tell them about their experiences. But he pointed out that the same is true for much more familiar mental phenomena.

“What about the miracle that we are conscious? Just think about that for a second, that we are aware we’re aware!”

A man after my own heart. It is amazing, a kind of miracle. And we get consciousness and metacognition without any drug intervention at all. It just springs into our beings at some point, as we create ourselves from lived events and construct speculative worlds and an understanding (though often flawed) of other minds.

Here is another fascinating result from the psilocybin studies that may make us revise our ideas of interpersonal relationships, personhood, and creating a self. Pollan writes:

A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.   [italics mine]

Openness, aesthetic appreciation, imagination, tolerance, creativity…and one researcher in neuropsychopharmacology suggests that this sort of un-boundaried openness signifies a temporary regression to an infantile state, very much as Freud hypothesized. I thought instead of Bachelard and the childhood reverie state.

Intriguing, that pharmacological work of this sort makes neuroscientists resort to citing William James and Sigmund Freud on mystical experience and the subconscious!

[Robin] Carhart-Harris believes that people suffering from other mental disorders characterized by excessively rigid patterns of thinking, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, could benefit from psychedelics, which “disrupt stereotyped patterns of thought and behavior.” In his view, all these disorders are, in a sense, ailments of the ego. He also thinks that this disruption could promote more creative thinking. It may be that some brains could benefit from a little less order.    [italics mine]

I wonder if the aesthetic experience itself, when wholly engaged, can sometimes act like a drug on the art-viewer’s or art-maker’s being. When one reads the poem that rearranges one’s world, doesn’t it disrupt stereotyped, familiar, habitual patterns of thought? That’s what happens for me when I encounter great art of any kind. It is close to mystical.




I follow the Women’s Poetry Listserve (Wom-Po), and recently there was a discussion there concerning what poetic voice is. Can it be defined clearly? Does it differ, and if so how, from style? Is it personal, belonging to the writer herself–an attitude? Is it distinct from the creator of the poem, as the “speaker” of the poem arguably is in the case of poetic voice/persona?
A listserv member offered this quote from Kunitz:
“One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images which go back to the poet’s childhood and which are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic. That cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.” … from Stanley Kunitz‘s 1975 lecture at the Library of Congress, “From Feathers to Iron.”

A constellation of key images may seem to be imagery, not voice at all; but Kunitz’s decision to connect distinctive voice with a recognizable beat and images, and to further suggest that these mesh to in the compositions of a poet who is writing with clarity and authenticity (my interpretation of what he means by “working at their center”), indicates that voice is a critical component of poetry. I have read the above-mentioned lecture, but Kunitz does not there elaborate on whether he means the writer’s personality, style, or attitude or whether he means, instead, persona. It seems to me, though, that he wasn’t talking about persona (the “speaker” or mask the writer uses in an individual piece). I interpret that the key constellation of images, the “individuating node,” would have to be personal experience of the actual writer–Roland Barthes be damned.

CH Chucrch

Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological approach to poetics and, to some extent, psychology, appears to jive with Kunitz’s pivotal childhood images. It is easier to recognize one’s own key images in one’s work, of course…and I cannot help but recognize that Kunitz has nailed it for me, at least, if not for all poets (writers, artists, musicians, etc.). My own cluster of images, drawn from childhood, include the church. Also the beat of hymns and responsive readings and the King James and RSV Bibles. Also the bleat and wail of diesel engine horns, the progression of fields and trees and flowers, the hum of highways, the sluggish flow of certain rivers. To mention but a few that stay with me.

I am not an adherent to any particular style or form of literary critique, and I am not a whole-hearted phenomenologist, either–but I have to admit that these concepts (the individual’s key images, the individual voice and the persona voice, the rhythm or beat of a writer/speaker) intrigue me. I find them well worth exploring, mulling over.

See Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa post here for a mini-photo-essay that illustrates what I mean.

Lyric time

I’m currently savoring–as slowly as possible, as it is a short book–Mark Doty’s “World into Word” essays in The Art of Description. The text has been gently pushing my thoughts back toward matters of poetry.

I always think of Doty’s style, in prose and poetry, as precise and almost studied, though the studied-ness doesn’t feel overbearing but reflective; a naturalness remains that keeps the poems “hospitable” (as he puts it).

In his essay on Bishop, “The Tremendous Fish,” Doty examines the various forms of observation and focus or perspective that contribute to any work of art, although here he is of course honing in on the lyric state of mind. These passages seem to me to hearken to Bachelard (see here and here) on the temporal:

What is memory but a story about how we have lived? …there is another sort of temporality, too, which is timelessness. In this lyric time we cease to be aware of forward movement…it represents instead a slipping out of story and into something still more fluid, less linear: the interior landscape of reveries. This sense of time originates in childhood, before the conception of causality…

Self-forgetful concentration is precisely what happens in the artistic process–an absorption in the moment, a pouring of the self into the now. We are, as Dickinson days, ‘without the date, like Consciousness or Immortality.’ That is what artistic work and child’s play have in common; both, at their fullest, are experiences of being lost in the present, entirely occupied.


This is, in addition to relating to Bachelard’s concepts on reverie, a form of mindfulness that would not be out of place in Zen and would be recognizable to any artist familiar with the creative “zone.”

I’m reminded of a popular colloquialism of the 1970s: “zoning out.” Generally, the phrase signified not paying attention, being slightly stoned, out of touch: negative connotations. Yet there were people who used the term in a more positive way to mean “in the zone”–an acceptable, if “flaky,” zinging of the mind into a calm or creative space.

A space where poets might wander in “self-forgetful concentration.”


Let’s go…

Studio. Space.

Contemporary artist and blogger Deborah Barlow writes: “A studio, like a womb, is a vesseled space, a geolocation from which one’s work, intentionally free of its context, can emerge.”

In another recent post, she talks about artists’ decisions about whether or not to offer studio tours, and art critics’ decisions about whether or not to visit studios. The critics she mentions (Saltz and Smith) prefer not to see the studios of artists whose work they are reviewing. The sense I get is that the critic needs more objectivity–a disinterestedness–and that a working artist’s studio is a personal space, one through which perhaps the critic might learn too much (context? biography? vulnerability? …one wonders).

I wrote my graduate thesis on how time works in poems, and for a long time I considered writing a followup on space in the poem, particularly the kind of vesseled, nested, interior space to which Barlow alludes (and Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space).

What spaces are conducive to the creative process? Such variety! I have friends who love to write in diner booths or cafes, and others who need complete silence, no distraction (Annie Dillard wrote in a closet; Robert Frost in a shed). One writer I know must be in bed to write. Another must be outdoors. The place matters to many people–but not to all of them.

Writing’s different from painting, sculpting–arts that require at least a few tools at hand.

But some of my writing friends need a computer, or a candle; a pencil and a legal pad, or a fountain pen and a spiral notebook; a bookshelf; darkness; classical music, or the blues.

I don’t really have a studio these days. Maybe it is time I lent my mind to carving out a creative space? –Somewhere nestled, vesseled, interior: (A Room of Her Own).

Below: A location…space, intentionally free of context.  🙂


Too difficult?

Another difficult book, Poetry, Language, Thought by Heidegger offered me less insight than I’d hoped and irritated me more than other philosophical readings I’ve been perusing lately. I do see a link between Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, Bachelard, etc.; these essays also connect to linguistic and semiotic philosophies. In the semiotic-etymological vein, however, I much prefer Umberto Eco‘s writing.

Of the essays in Poetry, Language, Thought, my favorites are “The Thinker as Poet,” “Building Dwelling Thinking,” and “The Origin of the Work of Art,” although that last one is problematic in a number of ways. Heidegger uses etymology, history, and his own concept of the fourfold making  up the onefoldedness of being (crucial to his philosophical cosmos but unconvincing to me) to question being and origin. The problem, always, is language. How to express the inexpressible? How can we use words to communicate when we cannot even reasonably define them–there’s no staying-in-place with words. Wittgenstein proves that even so simple a word as “game” has no single, stable definition that can serve as a premise for a logical assertion–yet, he notes, we do not need a definition in order to use the word. [For a ‘cave-man’s explanation’ of this topic, see the section called “Meaning and Definition” in this Wiki article: philosophical investigations.]

Dwelling: a light-house

Dwelling: a light-house

As a poet, I work with words, so these ideas interest me. Heidegger hasn’t helped much, though his discussion of what it means to “dwell in” will stay with me, resonating a bit with Arne Naess’ writing. I also found helpful his assertion that the best meaning for the word truth is unconcealedness. I like the idea that Truth, that vague abstract Big Concept we invoke so often as pursuit or justification, is always and ever present–but that we must un-conceal it, a slight variance in connotation from the usually-cited revealing of truth.


Some Heidegger quotes of note:

“Truth is at work in the work [of art]”

“Art…is the becoming and happening of truth. All art is essentially poetry” –because, “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of what is.”


So onto what irritated me. Among other things, most of all the essay “What Are Poets For?” The discussion stems from a famous line of Hölderlin‘s: “…and what are poets for in a destitute time?” Heidegger proceeds to use this famous inquiry to examine a lesser known poem by Ranier Maria Rilke–in the sort of philosophical critical analysis that drives me bonkers. Granted, this is a personal bias of mine and I won’t go into a rant upon it in this post. But, if you have read Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, you’ll have some idea of what I mean by interpretation for one’s own purposes. This essay could almost have been Nabokov’s inspiration.

Maybe it’s me, and Heidegger is just too brilliant for my limited depth in philosophy and art. But I am pleased to be leaving him behind now and am already enthusiastic about the lectures and essays in Octavio Paz’s The Bow and the Lyre.

I suppose I ought to stick with poets who philosophize about poetry.

Still more difficult books

I am perpetually out to confound myself.

After reading Larson’s odd but lucid koan-like “biography” of John Cage’s creative interpenetrations with Buddhism, I have begun Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1961 text The Phenomenology of Perception. Already I have encountered some thoughts in Merleau-Ponty that relate to the indeterminate, a concept that excited Cage and that Larson demonstrates shares a great deal with Zen. But reading Merleau-Ponty is more challenging than reading Larson’s book, as I have less background in early 20th-century philosophy than I do in Zen studies. I enjoyed reading Bachelard’s imaginative, image-based take on phenomenology because I could relate to it on a poetry level even when I missed some of the philosophical antecedents (or contemporaries) he references. That possibility isn’t available to me with Merleau-Ponty.

I do appreciate that his writings were formulated before technologies that made neurological processes visible and while psychology was still bickering with the “hard sciences” about empirical measurements. (Actually, that bickering continues in some areas of study.) I do not think Merleau-Ponty would agree with, say, E. O. Wilson’s rather reductionist idea of consilience. Yet clearly, the philosopher was willing not to discount the sciences or empirical study–he just felt those areas were not of particular use to a philosopher, particularly a phenomenologist.

The body is what we have with which to experience the world, Merleau-Ponty tells us. But the human body is limited by its perceptual experiences. Structures–and that includes abstract structures such as thought–appear to have recognizable patterns, and the perceiver may posit cause and effect as a result. But another body may perceive differently, due to a different biological process or a different time or any number of physical or environmental variables. We perceive yellow with the cones and rods of our human eyes; the dog or the bee, the spider or the hippopotamus, may have eyes that do not see yellow as we do. Is yellow a quality or a perception? Merleau-Ponty seems to be saying (I am not very far into the book, so I  may be in error) that science cannot be objective, even though it is science that made us question our senses: “We believed we knew what feeling, seeing, and hearing were, and now these words raise problems.”

And how does this all relate to consciousness? Maybe I’ll figure that out as I go along.

ann e. michael poet


Here’s a sentence I love because it speaks to me of poetry and the arts on the level of ambiguity: “[Science, with its categorization] requires that two perceived lines, like two real lines, be equal or unequal, that a perceived crystal should have a definite number of sides, without realizing that the perceived, by its nature, admits of the ambiguous, the shifting, and is shaped by its context.”

Or perhaps by observation? A little Uncertainty Principle going on there. I feel that good poems change when observed, and change in the context of the reader’s time, place, experience; that they possess ambiguity not in the sense of rhetorical wishy-washiness but in the rich sense of complex possibilities, indeterminacy, transformation.


I’m especially pleased to have found Bernard Flynn’s article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (the link to the entire article is above), which ends with the following reflections on Merleau-Ponty:

If we think how the thought of Merleau-Ponty might prolong itself into the 21st century, or as it portends a future, then we cannot not be struck by the fact that his philosophy does not entertain any conception whatsoever of an ‘apocalyptic end of philosophy’ followed by the emergence of some essentially different mode of thought. Unlike Heidegger, there is no anticipation of an ‘other beginning’, also there is nothing like Derrida’s ‘Theory’ which is waiting in the wings to displace philosophy, and unlike Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty’s thought does not await the disappearance of philosophy. In the academic year 1958–1959, Merleau-Ponty gave a course at the Collège de France entitled “Our State of Non-Philosophy.” He began by saying that ‘for the moment’ philosophy is in a crisis, but he continued, “My thesis: this decadence is inessential; it is that of a certain type of philosopher…. Philosophy will find help in poetry, art, etc., in a closer relationship with them, it will be reborn and will re-interprete its own past of metaphysics—which is not past” (Notes de cours, 1959–60, p. 39, my translation). After writing this he turns to literature, painting, music, and psychoanalysis for philosophical inspiration.

The theme of the indeterminate frequently recurs in the thought of Merleau-Ponty. Philosophy is enrooted in the soil of our culture and its possibilities are not infinite, but neither are they exhausted. In an essay entitled “Everywhere and Nowhere, ” Merleau-Ponty explicitly reflects on the future of philosophy, he writes that philosophy “will never regain the conviction of holding the keys to nature or history in its concepts, and it will not renounce its radicalism, that search for presuppositions and foundations which has produced the great philosophies” (Signs, 157). In his Inaugural Address to the Collège de France, he claimed that “philosophy limps” and further on that “this limping of philosophy is its virtue” (In Praise of Philosophy, 61).

What will philosophy do in the 21st century? It will limp along.

Apparently, I shall be limping along with it.


The web journal qarrtsiluni is running an issue on “fragments.” I feel a bit fragmented myself lately. Here are a few recent, fragmentary thoughts.


I am reading Lewis Mumford’s tome The City in History and enjoying it for a number of reasons. One is Mumford’s ability to employ words such as “forfend” in a correct and even natural way. Another reason is the approach he takes to trying to reason through and tease out strains of pre-history that lead up to the establishment of cities world-wide, a kind of philosophical anthropology. Sixty years of subsequent archeological discovery and interpretation may alter his theories, or perhaps lean toward confirming them; I’m not enough of a scholar to know. I do, however, find his speculations appealing. One of his theories suggests that war developed along with hierarchical religion, kingship, and the city. It makes sense that militarization on any significant scale was not “invented” until there was population enough to support it and reasons (defend the king, the god, or the goods) to deploy a military body.

He does not say human beings are not inherently aggressive. He merely suggests that when we live in smaller, more isolated groups it is in our best interest to cooperate rather than to expend resources on warfare (soldiers, arms, defenses). Something to meditate upon in current times.


Mumford was researching and writing this book in the late 1950s (publication date was 1961). Interesting to me, he cites Jung’s archetypes and theories–though not in a way that implies Mumford was in any way a Jungian–about the feminine and the masculine as regards the development of human social structures. Bachelard, writing at about the same time, also cites Jung when he discusses the poetic space. I think of Bachelard’s brief passage about how a bird creates its nest with its own body, its breast molding the shape of the container that is its temporary home, and how this correlates with Mumford’s observation that the tent, hut, or village dwelling–indeed, often the village itself (and later, the city)–tends toward a cup-shape; it is a container. The earliest communities of human beings needed to develop containers in order to improve their chances of survival: jugs, skins, gourds for water and covered bowls or jars for grain and seed storage. Once humans could last through times when game or gathered food was scarce, they could procreate more efficiently. Mumford defines irrigation ditches as containers, too, as “feminine” objects as per Jung.

The garden wall, the city wall contained the human community or the sustenance for the human community, especially once domesticated animals were added to our communities.

As for the masculine/phallic, Mumford’s examples are all the expected objects: tools and weapons and stele.


The ancient Persian word that is the root for our “paradise” comes from the term for garden, specifically a walled garden. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “city” is a circle with “crossroads” inside it. A link to one of Notre Dame’s open course lecture pages has an illustration comparing this hieroglyph with other ancient representations of cities. (Notre Dame course on the geometry of buildings that demonstrates some of the universality of “containers” as Mumford observed: Geometry of Buildings.)


Also, I wonder whether Jung’s archetype theories were still new enough in 1960 that it was kind of a trend to cite him in works like these two books. Jung does not seem to be as popular these days except among his devoted followers–a niche audience. Perhaps his ideas are now just accepted as given? Not all of his ideas, but the general understanding of archetypes, I mean. Or is he out of fashion? Or am I just missing the current books that base a significant understanding of human cultural development upon these aspects of his thinking?


Man and His Symbols was an important book for me when I was a college freshman.


I keep thinking of the places I find in the meadow where the deer bed down. They are round, cup-shaped, molded to the bodies of the deer. Containers, temporarily, for the warm animal that sleeps, that breathes.