Archive for the ‘insight’ Category
[ by Charles Cameron -- a response to, and endorsement of, Tom Cheetham ]
If I only had one book to take with me, I’d pick Henry Corbin‘s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, also available under the title Alone with the Alone. And I’d pick it, because — well, this poem of mine says it best:
No Place Special
I am baffled:
your muezzin calls me
with a call more resonant than any command
of sensible business, any
instrument, nay, of corporeal music,
to prayer in no place visible,
as if defining by example what
eyes in the back of the head might mean,
might see, ears on the inside
of the skull mean, what
their music, not being
ears or eyes in the habitual sense at all.
Not the sheer cliffs of fall
Of Hopkins’ poem, but cliffs sheer without any
word-hold by which to climb
celestialwards — as if
adamant, as if obsidian,
oblique to terrestrial gravity, this cliff
of hearing the call without seeing the mosque,
around, inwards, some new way within.
I have ignored the lures, chased breath,
pressed my life into service, and —
as if a pressed life, even in service, were
death on display, a pinned butterfly —
withdrawn from pressing,
taken ease in the swell and ride
of life, loved much, seen
many to my great joy and felt richly
to my grief…
muezzin yet calls, the baffle, the cliff
still between me and the attainment of garden,
tree and spring.
Corbin’s book is too high for me, but I feel the call. And Ibn Arabi — beyond my knowing.
Ibn Arabi is known as the Shaykh al-Akbar, the greatest shaykh, because his work towers higher and digs deeper into the soul than that of any other Islamic writer, saving only (perhaps) his contemporary the poet mystic Jalaluddin Rumi.
Stepping down from his heights, up from his profundities, we have in Henry Corbin an interpreter of great power — and since I find even Corbin requiring of me a depth of insight I can not yet grasp yet must read again and again across the decades, I am happy to have found his interpreter, Tom Cheetham.
And thus Tom Cheetham is a doorway for me into the doorway that Henry Corbin is to Ibn Arabi, himself a doorway into the profoundest mystery.
You can find Tom Cheetham’s four books here — I’d start with The World Turned Inside Out: Henry Corbin and Islamic Mysticism, and read them in the order of publication.
I have written this post to draw the attention of any who may be interested to Tom’s offer of an online seminar in Corbin’s work: The World of Henry Corbin – Online Learning.
I am considering the possibility of offering some kind of online learning program.
I would like to know:
(1) if there is interest,
(2) what topics people would be most interested in,
(3) what format or formats might be most useful, and
(4) whether people might be willing to pay a modest fee.
Any other comments or suggestions are welcome.
Contact me by commenting on this post or emailing me at
subject heading “Corbin Online Learning”
Very highly recommended.
Scott Shipman had an excellent book review post An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941 — a review-lite and a few questions in which he discussed the intellectual seriousness and evolution of war planner Major Albert C. Wedemeyer as a military officer and strategist:
….Wedemeyer was an honor graduate of the Command and General Staff College, and his performance earned him the opportunity to attended the Kriegsakademie, the German staff college. However, coupled with impressive academic preparations, Kirkpatrick writes that Wedemeyer’s curiosity exposed him to a “kaleidoscope” of ideas and methods. Kirkpatrick summed-up Wedemeyer: “Competence as a planner thus emerged as much from conscientious professional study as from formal military education…” Going on to say:
In common with many of his peers, much of Wedemeyer’s professional and intellectual education was less the product of military schooling than of personal initiative and experience in the interwar Army.
Wedemeyer’s intellectual development was purposeful and paid off. In Wedemeyer’s deep study of his profession he used the prescribed paths, but also explored on his own. How common is that today?
As often happens, the discussion can take an unexpected turn in the comments section. Lexington Green weighed in with this:
Think about George Marshall in China, traveling around on horseback. No cell phone, no email. The man could actually think. Or Eisenhower meeting with Fox Connor to talk about the books Connor had him read. Telephone calls were not even common. The military might do well to have two days once a quarter of silent retreats, only emergency communication permitted, with literally no unnecessary conversation, for groups of officers and non-coms, with some assigned reading and some self-selected on the same theme, then an open discussion after dinner. It would cost virtually nothing and would be an intellectual and mental oasis, and some good ideas might come out of it. Religious silent retreats which last a couple of days and are truly life-restoring. This would probably be useful as well.
That in turn provoked this response from Marshall:
My sense is that many of us live, work, and fraternize in a culture of crisis. Everything is urgent. One response is to just shut off the moment we get some downtime. TV, drinking, schlock fiction, immersion in pop culture, video games, blog reading are some of the ways I’ve coped. I grew out of those as timewasters as I realized that I no longer had time to shut off if I wanted to do something.
But I still live in a culture of crisis. Almost everybody around me “has no time”. It doesn’t really matter what is being proposed, the sense of urgency kills all ambition toward progress. Defending myself and my space form this is a daily challenge – and some days I lose.
I’m visiting family this week on a long-scheduled “vacation” that has been interrupted by my office several times already, but always with the promise, “just this thing, Marshall, we don’t want to take you away from your family”. And these are the people I choose as my allies!
The culture of crisis doesn’t believe in people’s choices. It says that time will only be wasted, so we have to keep our people busy. After all, see how they spend their “free” time? Dissolute wastrels the lot of them. And then the culture of crisis tells us that we need to recharge by shutting off our minds. You need to vege out, man, you’re stressed; turn on the TV and have a beer, mate. Or else fire up your e-mail and write six more. And, hey, sorry about your insomnia, but it lets you get a jump on the day, amirite? [....]
The discussion moved on, but I have been mulling upon this exchange ever since.
The first thing that came to mind is that what we mean by “silence” really isn’t silent, what is really meant is that there is an absence of human voice pulling at our limited capacity for attention. Cognitive load is probably a real, if variable, limit on human cognition and the nature of hyperconnected information society is that all too frequently we are -and feel – “overloaded”.
When human voices are absent the “background” environmental noise comes “forward” , natural (wind through trees, animals etc) or mechanical (various humms and clicks) that we unconsciously tune out as a matter of routine focusing on conversation or distracting hearsay, broadcasts and so on. The processing in the brain is significantly different depending on what kinds of sounds you are listening to, for example:
1. Listening to Music
2. Listening to Language
3. Listening to unpleasant sounds (nails on chalkboard etc.)
So eliminating human speech from your environment but not hearing (earplugs) itself allows other regions of your brain to become more active than usual, depending on whatever else you may be doing at the time (walking, chopping wood, smelling a flower, scanning the horizon and so on). Your brain’s performance and how it varies when thinking under conditions of different combinations and levels of sensory stimuli – “crossmodal processing” – is not yet well understood as research is in early stages of investigation.
I will speculate here that what is important for enriching your thinking is that taking your brain out a linguistic-saturated environment (let’s include the “soundless noise” of intruding textual symbols as well from smartphones, iPads, laptops) gives it an opportunity to operate differently for a time and establish new neuronal network patterns of activity. Various forms of meditation – which involves both silence and an intentional modulation of attention – also alters normal brain activity.
I will now go further out on a data-free analytical limb and hypothesize that making a practice of “silence” and/or meditation might improve your thinking by making moments of creative insight more likely. Studies on insight tend to show that as a cognitive event, insight comes about as a kind of a “pulse” of activity and relaxation in the brain:
….Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. Jung-Beeman became interested in the nature of insight in the early nineteen-nineties, while researching the right hemisphere of the brain. Mentions Jonathan Schooler. Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A. Problems)—solved. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG (electroencephalography) testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. Mentions Joy Bhattacharya and Henri Poincaré. The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.
Another interesting data point to consider re: “silence” and insight is that the mental illness of schizophrenia, where delusions and other mental “noise” exists is significantly negatively correlated with insight. Researchers are currently investigating if meditation can ease the symptoms of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
For myself, I find my best ideas come via insight when I am doing something primarily physical requiring steady but not all of my concentration and I am alone – working out, walking the dog, a household chore and so on. Relatively useful ideas can happen when I am reading or writing or debating (i.e. interacting with a text or a person), but they tend to be analytic and derivative, sort of an intellectual “tweaking” or “tinkering” but not ones that are fundamentally creative or synthesizing.
Lexington Green may be right – Silence is golden.
[ by Charles Cameron -- here's a musical experiment from the book / project i seem to be writing, which offers a grand slam intro to contemplative and artistic approaches to creative thinking, and hence a fresh angle on intelligence ]
It looks very much as though I’ve been beginning to write parts of let’s call it “a book” for a while here on Zenpundit. I laid out the overall topic and approach as I see it in my previous post, but here I would like to launch into it mid-stream, with a musical experiment to explore the mind’s capabilities. I’ll explain why, later.
Okay, here’s the experiment.
I invite you to listen to a short piece by JS Bach on YouTube. This will take roughly three and a half minutes of your time, the piece of music itself is one of the glories of the classical tradition, I’ve chosen the video because of the terrific graphics that accompany and illuminate the music, there will be some rock and ragtime to follow for those whose tastes go those ways — and I must ask you to pay very special attention while watching and listening to the video.
Before you do that, however, I’d like you to take a look at the image at the top of this post, which shows you the ending of the piece both as the video graphics present it, and in the musical notation or “score” an organist would read. The graphics are terrific because they allow the untrained eye to follow the threads of the different melodies or “voices” as Bach braids them together. The work is his “Little Fugue” in G minor, which you can find indexed in his collected works as “BWV 578″.
Here’s how I’d like you to pay attention during the piece:
As you listen to the performance on video, I’d like you to follow the colored lines of the melodies as they move along in the video graphic, and listen carefully to hear how many of the lines of sound you can actually follow distinctly in your mind. At the beginning there’s only one “voice” – only one line of melody – so your task is easy. If you are used to listening to music of one sort or another, you’ll almost certainly be able to track, more or less, some kind of thumping bass line and some kind of melody rising above it – two voices.
Can you manage three? four or more?
If you’re a musician you may still find the graphics — and the exercise – illuminating, but you might prefer to make the same experiment with a version of the piece played by Robert Köbler on a Silbemann organ, accompanied on video by the score..
Here’s the video — see how many voices you can hear and track:
How did you do? How many voices could you follow at one time?
And why am I bothering to as you to do this, and then talking so much about it? After all, you may already know everything I’m saying and more, or you may simply not care that much about such things.
Here’s why: the project is about creativity and intelligence.
It’s about how to apply forms of creativity that are generally found in the arts and humanities – and in the world’s contemplative traditions — to the questions that arise for every bright human as we face the exhilarating challenging and terrifyingly complex world around us.
It’s about understanding complexity, in the way the Intelligence Community needs to understand complexity, and business leadership, and our scientists and technicians, and the congregants at our synagogues, churches, mosques and temples, and, well, all the bright people everywhere — disillusioned, or fresh and rarin’ to go.
Complex problems often require some sort of recognition and resolution of several or many distinct and sometimes conflicting voices, points of view, concerns or vectors.. which may shift in intensity and direction as the situation evolves.
In musical terminology, any music that includes two or more distinct melodic lines or “voices” playing together simultaneously is polyphonic – from the Greek for “many voices”. Counterpoint – from the Latin for a point that counters another point — is the artful way in which composers can “work” two or more melodic lines together, so they clash at times, resolve, and harmonize.
The fugue – the particular contrapuntal form Bach uses in the piece you just heard — imposes even tighter constraints on the composer, and can elicit even greater creative inspiration as a result — as many of Bach’s, Mozart‘s, Beethoven‘s and others’ greatest works testify..
I imagine you can see that the many voices of polyphony — voices in counterpoint, that at times clash and are in need of resolution and harmony — have their equivalents in the complex multi-stakeholder problems, clashing points of view and need for constructive resolutions that creative artists, intelligence analysts, strategy, policy and decision makers, and anyone who wants to keep aware of the shifting currents of our strange and complicated times all need to take into account.
So polyphonic, and specifically contrapuntal, thinking, can be extended way beyond the realm of music — as Hermann Hesse suggested in his greatest novel, Glenn Gould tried to demonstrate in his “contrapuntal radio” pieces, and Edward Said understood when he characterized the Israeli-Palestinian issue in these words:
When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out.
The “book” may turn out to be a DVD, or a workshop, at this point who knows? Whatever format it winds up it takes, it will teach contrapuntal thinking — using examples drawn from world culture and contemporary geopolitics — as a radical alternative methodology, complementary to but very different from our current analytic methods. It will be a text in the cross-disciplinary, associative, lateral or horizontal equivalent of the kind of disciplinary, siloed, linear or vertical thinking that our increasingly specialized culture has trained us in —
and which we need to supplement, if we are to have the mental flexibility to see and make the creative leaps our times require of us.
For more on this, see also my Feb 2011 post (at least I’m reasonably consistent over time) A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach.
God only knows how many voices there are in Bob Dylan‘s song Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, or Eric Clapton‘s Have you ever loved a woman from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival – the principle’s the same, but we don’t (yet) have the graphics to allow your eye to follow what the musicians are doing — and there are solos, and sidemen.
Each musician has at least one voice, its melodies and its silences, to present – and sometimes several, as we saw with the Bach organ piece. And together the individual musicians add up to an ensemble, each with an awareness of the others’ voices and a concentration on their own.
And for an insight into the varieties of organ mastery, compare Billy Preston‘s amazing solo starting at 9’33″ on the Clapton piece, Al Kooper‘s organ work on Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady, and Ton Koopman‘s rendering of the same Little Fugue BWV 578 we started with – where at times you can watch Koopman’s fingers on the keys or feet on the pedals, for yet another way of visualizing the intricate interweavings of this glorious music.
Glenn Gould had an amazing mind: for your enjoyment, here’s a version of his own fugue, aptly entitled So You Want To Write a Fugue? — with a similar graphical display to help you follow along with the interweaving lines of melody…
It’s serious, and it’s hilarious too! Or maybe you’d prefer Scott Joplin? Either way, enjoy:
Scott Joplin, Euphonic Sounds, a Syncopated Novelty:
“War is more than a true chameleon that slightly adapts its characteristics to the given case. As a total phenomenon its dominant tendencies always make war a remarkable trinity–composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force; of the play of chance and probability within which the creative spirit is free to roam; and of its element of subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.”
-Carl von Clausewitz, On War
“Thus the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field; and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities….Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without any fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field. With his forces intact he will dispute the mastery of the Empire, and thus, without losing a man, his triumph will be complete. This is the method of attacking by stratagem.”
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War
This blog is read by many people with a deep interest in strategy coming from different philosophical and professional perspectives. While I have my own speculations based on years of study, I would like to begin by first posing a few questions to the readership:
- What is the relationship between strategy and creativity?
- Or between strategic thinking and creative thinking?
- Is “doing strategy” primarily an act of planning, calculation and rational problem-solving or is it also a profoundly creative and intuitive enterprise?
- If we get better at thinking creatively, do we become better, more effective strategists? The reverse?
- Is creativity more useful in “grand strategy” (or “statecraft”, if you prefer) and policy than in straightforward “military strategy”?
The floor is yours, strong argument is welcomed.