Tag Archives: subconscious

“The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch

This short story is unique in its subtle creepiness and explores the way that art, especially music, can directly affect a person’s psyche. Hence, it is way more psychologically unsettling than a straight-out horror story. There is also some great symbolism used here, which we will examine.

The tale is narrated in first person by a student of metaphysics in an unnamed city, but which appears to possibly be Paris. He describes the area and the prominence of the river.

The Rue d’Auseil lay across a dark river bordered by precipitous brick blear-windowed warehouses and spanned by a ponderous bridge of dark stone. It was always shadowy along the river, as if the smoke form the neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually. The river was also odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelled elsewhere, and which may some day help me find it, since I should recognise them at once. Beyond the bridge were narrow cobbled streets with rails; and then came the ascent, at first gradual, but incredibly steep as the Rue d’Auseil was reached.

Here Lovecraft is setting up the river as a symbol for the threshold between the two states of consciousness. The crossing over the river, moving through the shadows, represents the shift from normal consciousness to the darker subconscious regions of the psyche.

The protagonist rents a room in this shadowy liminal area and soon hears strange music coming from one of the rooms above.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius. The longer I listened, the more I was fascinated, until after a week I resolved to make the old man’s acquaintance.

The distant strains of the weird music cause the student to experience momentary subtle shifts in his consciousness. He is not able to identify what is happening to him, because his conscious mind is still dominant, but he is beginning to open ever so slightly to the possibility of other states of awareness.

Finally, the student is in the room with Zann, when Zann slips into a reverie and begins to play the strange music, which ultimately leads to the student’s complete shift in awareness.

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I felt it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognised the air—it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theatres, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.

Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window. In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.

At the point in which the student finally experiences his shift to the subconscious, he looks out of the window, which here is another symbol for the separation between the conscious mind and the subconscious. As he peers out, he is actually peering deep into his psyche and becoming aware of the primal darkness that lurks within.

Then I remembered my old wish to gaze from this window, the only window in the Rue d’Auseil from which one might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath. It was very dark, but the city’s lights always burned, and I expected to see them there amidst the rain and wind. Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.

As a musician, I am keenly aware of the power of music to communicate directly to the psyche. Sounds and tones evoke emotional states in a way that is difficult to explain. For that reason, as well as the superb crafting of language, this tale has earned its place among my favorite Lovecraft tales.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your comments below.

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“Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

I’ve had this book on my shelf for so long that I don’t even remember where I got it from. But as part of my goal to clear some of my unread books and continue reading more spiritual texts, I figured I would give this one a read.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. There were great insights, it read well, and the language was nicely crafted. In fact, it seemed just a little too polished for someone who was not a native English speaker, but hey, every writer needs a good editor.

Many years ago, I was a vegetarian, and I was so for about 13 years. When I started eating meat again (my body needed it when training for my first marathon), I grappled with the ethical questions of eating meat, even though I made sure to only get ethically raised meats. Then one day, I had a realization that plants and rocks, being comprised of energy, must also possess consciousness, just like animals, but a type of consciousness that we cannot perceive as humans. To survive, we must get energy from other things, living and non-living (in the case of minerals). A passage in this book affirmed this belief that I have.

The telltale charts of my crescograph are evidence for the most skeptical that plants have a sensitive nervous system and a varied emotional life. Love, hate, joy, fear, pleasure, pain, excitability, stupor, and countless other appropriate responses to stimuli are as universal in plants as in animals.

(p. 78)

During times of deep meditation, I have been fortunate enough to experience momentary shifts in consciousness, slipping briefly into states of heightened awareness. These moments are virtually impossible to convey using the limited tool of language, but Yogananda does an excellent job describing that ineffable experience.

All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master’s, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation.

(p. 167)

While I love to read, and I believe there is value in reading spiritual and mystical texts, it is important to not only read, but to practice too. Book knowledge will only take a person so far on the spiritual path.

The great guru taught his disciples to avoid theoretical discussion of the scriptures. “He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations,” he said. “Solve all your problems through meditation. Exchange unprofitable speculations for actual God-communion.”

(p. 377)

The last passage from this book that I want to share concerns what is important for the sustainability and longevity of a society. We are at a point in human history where wealth, military power, and materialism are the measures of a society’s worth and strength. I do not agree with this paradigm. I believe it is art, the humanities, and how we care for each other that are the true measures of a society’s strength and endurance.

The Biblical story of Abraham’s plea to the Lord that the city of Sodom be spared if ten righteous men could be found therein, and the Divine reply: “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake,” gains new meaning in the light of India’s escape from oblivion. Gone are the empires of mighty nations, skilled in the arts of war, that once were India’s contemporaries: ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome.

The Lord’s answer clearly shows that a land lives, not in its material achievements, but in its masterpieces of man.

(p. 340)

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The Tibetan Book of the Dead

This has been on my list of mystical books to read for quite a long time. A couple years ago, I found a copy at a garage sale and bought it. Of course, I felt guilty every time I saw it unread upon the shelf. But I finally got around to reading it, and probably right when I needed to.

This particular copy includes a large amount of introductory text. Usually, I skip introductions, but the commentaries here were very enlightening and I’m glad I read them, particularly Carl Jung’s introduction to the text.

Before embarking upon the psychological commentary, I should like to say a few words about the text itself. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Bardo Thödol, is a book of instructions for the dead and dying. Like The Egyptian Book of the Dead, it is meant to be a guide for the dead man during the period of his Bardo existence, symbolically described as an intermediate state of forty-nine days’ duration between death and rebirth. The text falls into three parts. The first part, called Chikhai Bardo, describes the psychic happenings at the moment of death. The second part, or Chönyid Bardo, deals with the dream-state which supervenes immediately after death, and with what are called ‘karmic illusions’. The third part, or Sidpa Bardo, concerns the onset of the birth-instinct and of prenatal events.

 (p. xxxv – xxxvi)

Because the book deals primarily with what happens to one’s consciousness after death, the text is understandably highly symbolic. As Lama Govinda points out in his introductory section, whenever the subconscious is being explored, it must be approached through the use of symbols.

If, through some trick of nature, the gates of an individual’s subconsciousness were suddenly to spring open, the unprepared mind would be overwhelmed and crushed. Therefore, the gates of the subconscious are guarded, by all initiates, and hidden behind the veil of mysteries and symbols.

(p. liii)

Lama Govinda then points out a common misconception regarding the Bardo Thödol. Many people may assume that the text is a set of instructions solely intended for the dead or dying. But this is not the only purpose. For people pursuing a spiritual path, there comes a time when they must symbolically die, essentially killing their former selves so that they can be reborn as an enlightened being.

Such misunderstanding could only have arisen among those who do not know that it is one of the oldest and most universal practices for the initiate to go through the experience of death before he can be spiritually reborn. Symbolically he must die to his past, to his old ego, before he can take his place in the new spiritual life into which he has been initiated.

(p. lix – lx)

During the 49-day period in which a person’s consciousness is in the Bardo, the individual experiences numerous visions. The text is very clear that these visions are nothing but illusion. The goal, then, is to recognize that what we perceive, in this reality as well as in the Bardo, is illusory by nature. Once we recognize that what we sense is illusion, our consciousness becomes free.

The whole aim of the Bardo Thödol teaching, as otherwise stated elsewhere, is to cause the Dreamer to awaken into Reality, freed from all the obscurations of karmic or sangsāric illusions, in a supramundane or Nirvānic state, beyond all phenomenal paradises, heavens, hells purgatories, or worlds of embodiment.

(p. 35)

The text offers a great prayer which should be used when facing the terrifying visions associated with the Bardo state.

Alas! when the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here,
With every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside,
May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;
May I know them to be of the nature of apparitions in the Bardo:
When at this all-important moment [of opportunity]of achieving a great end,
I may not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms.

(p. 103)

Fear is a manifestation of our thoughts. While some fears may be justified, the fact remains that fear is pure thought, which then triggers a physical response to the mental visions. This is something that is carried on with us to the next stage of existence. When our consciousness moves to the next plane, it brings with it the capacity to generate fearful images which can then paralyze the progress of the spirit.

O nobly-born, whatever fearful and terrifying visions thou mayst see, recognize them to be thine own thought-forms.

(p. 147)

I realize that I have barely scratched the surface of this symbolically rich and complex text. But hopefully I encouraged you to read it yourself and explore the wisdom woven into the book. I suspect that this is something I will read again in the future.

Cheers!

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The Qur’an: On Consciousness and Perception

The exploration of consciousness and perception is something that fascinates me, and is something I search for within all spiritual texts that I read. During my reading of the Qur’an, I came across some interesting passages concerning consciousness and perception that are worth sharing and contemplating.

The first passage addresses the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After eating the fruit, they become conscious of their physical state of being.

But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it. They became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves from the garden.

(p. 201)

There are a couple things I find interesting about this passage. First, there is a connection established between “immortality and power” and human consciousness. It is consciousness that makes us divine beings. Also, there is an implication that consciousness is immortal, that it lives on after our bodies cease to exist. This is a concept in which I firmly believe. The other thing that intrigued me about this passage is the subtle difference between the Judeo-Christian version of the story: in this version, Eve does not tempt Adam to eat the fruit. In fact, it almost seems like a reversal, that Adam gave in to Satan’s temptation and then gave the fruit to Eve also.

So, if consciousness if immortal, what happens to it after we die?

God takes souls at the time of death and the souls of the living while they sleep. He keeps hold of those whose death He has ordained and sends the others back until their appointed time: there truly are signs in this for those who reflect.

(p. 298)

The way I interpret this, when we die, our consciousness is reunited with the divine, which is the source of our consciousness. But also, when we sleep and enter the realm of the subconscious, we also temporarily merge our consciousness with the divine. I feel that this also happens during states of altered awareness, such as during meditation or under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Then what is the role of perception in all this? We are constantly exposed to spiritual and mystical experiences, but too often we are caught up in our lives to notice when these occur. The Qur’an offers a great parable describing this.

Even if they saw a piece of heaven falling down on them, they would say, ‘Just a heap of clouds,’ so leave them, Prophet, until they face the Day when they will be thunderstruck…

(p. 346)

We are always surrounded by signs of the divine spirit manifest in our world. Often, all we need is a slight shift in our consciousness and we begin to perceive what has always been there. If we are rushing about in our cars, or distracted by our cellular devices, when we look up, all we see is a heap of clouds. But if we slow down, take some deep cleansing breaths, and then look up at the sky, we notice something we failed to see before, a bit of heaven in our plane of existence.

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Monstress: Issue #10

I really love the artwork in this graphic series. Sana Takeda is an amazing artist. These illustrations vibrate with beauty and intensity.

In this issue, Maika and her companions visit the Isle of Bones, a place of mystery which may hold secrets to her past. But the remnants of the divine being that dwells within her points out that it is not actually an island, but the remains of a fallen god.

… That is no island… it is a god… fallen where it stood… in holy battle… these waters… are thick… with the putrescence… of its demise…

The symbolism here fascinated me. I see the water as a symbol for our collective consciousness. I could not help but wonder how much the mythology of fallen gods has permeated our global consciousness. We are, after all, the sum of our collective experiences, passed down through story and myth. This begs the question: What new god will be born out of the putrescence of our dead and decomposed gods?

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“Man and the Sea” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Painting by Ivan Aivazovsky

Always, unfettered man, you will cherish the sea!
The sea your mirror, you look into your mind
In its eternal billows surging without end
And its gulfs are bitter, so must your spirit be.

You plunge with joy into this image of your own:
You hug it with your eyes and arms; your heart
Forgets for a time its noisy beat, becomes a part
Of a greater, more savage and less tameable moan.

In your own ways, you both are brooding and discreet:
Man, no one has mapped your chasm’s hidden floor,
Oh sea, no one knows your inmost riches, for
Your jealousy hides secrets none can repeat.

As the uncounted swarm of centuries gathers
You two have fought without pity or remorse, both
From sheer love of the slaughter and of death,
Oh, eternal wrestlers, oh, relentless brothers!

(translation by Ruthven Todd)

The use of the sea as a metaphor for the subconscious mind is not unusual in literature, but this may be one of the most clear examples of it. Right in the first stanza, Baudelaire describes the sea as a mirror that allows you to “look into your mind.”

The second stanza intrigues me. The idea that is expressed is that once a person connects with his or her subconscious mind, then that person loses awareness of his conscious self. One’s ordinary awareness is replaced by something primordial, something that exists in the deepest recesses of the psyche.

In the third stanza, we are faced with the mystery of consciousness. The subconscious mind is something that cannot be fathomed or comprehended by our normal state of awareness. Like the divine spirit, it is ineffable.

This brings us to the fourth and final stanza. We have here a struggle, between the rational and the emotional, between the physical and the spiritual, between our inner good and our inner decadence. But what Baudelaire does so eloquently is that he ties these personal internal struggles in with the greater cosmic struggles. The “eternal wrestlers” and “relentless brothers” conjure images Jacob wrestling the angel, as well as Jacob’s struggle with Esau.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 7: The Stream of the Subconscious

Image Source - USF

Image Source – USF

In my previous post on Don Quixote, I explored the cave as a symbol for the subconscious mind. In this post, we will look at the river as a symbol for the stream of the subconscious.

After recovering from the experience of the cave, Sancho and Don Quixote arrive at the bank of the river Ebro. As they gaze into the water, there is an immediate but gentle shift in consciousness.

By stages as already described or left undescribed, two days after quitting the grove Don Quixote and Sancho reached the river Ebro, and the sight of it was a great delight to Don Quixote as he contemplated and gazed upon the charms of it banks, the clearness of its stream, the gentleness of its current and the abundance of its crystal waters; and the pleasant view revived a thousand tender thoughts in his mind.

(p. 769)

They discover a bark, which is a type of boat, and use it to set forth upon the river. As they embark, they feel a sense of trepidation, which signals that they are about to enter into an uncharted region of the psyche.

“Now they are tied,” said Sancho; “what are we to do next?”

“What?” said Don Quixote, “cross ourselves and weigh anchor; I mean, embark and cut the moorings by which the bark is held;” and the bark began to drift away slowly from the bank. But when Sancho saw himself somewhere about two yards out in the river, he began to tremble and give himself up for lost;

(p. 770)

The stream represents individual consciousness, which flows into the ocean, which is a symbol for the divine consciousness.

Art thou, perchance, tramping barefoot over the Riphaean mountains, instead of being seated on a bench like an archduke on the tranquil stream of this pleasant river, from which in a short space we shall come out upon the broad sea?

(p. 771)

The next passage I want to share is my favorite from this section. It is often believed that one must use mysticism or the occult in order to connect with the subconscious and ultimately the divine consciousness, but that is not the case. This is something that occurs naturally and effortlessly, once you calm the mind and open yourself to the flow of consciousness.

… and shaking his fingers he washed his whole hand in the river along which the boat was quietly gliding in midstream, not moved by any occult intelligence or invisible enchantment, but simply by the current, just there smooth and gentle.

(p. 773)

The genius of this book so far for me is how Cervantes is able to weave in rich mystical and spiritual ideas in a tale that is farcical and at times downright funny. Stay tuned for my next installment.

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