This morning, when it was still dark and the room was lit by candles, I picked up my coffee mug. I like my coffee strong and bold, and I took a drink, but it tasted like a peach.
I felt like I had taken a sip of an entire peach, bitter and fuzzy.
And I realized the peach is a wormhole.
There are times when we taste something, even if it’s something we eat often, a cheesy cracker, a donut, and for some reason and for only a flash our brain tells us that we’re tasting something entirely different. We might take a bite from a chocolate bar, but for a pop not-even-a-second we taste broccoli.
We usually ignore these moments, shift our focus back to “reality,” and the next bite tastes like a chocolate bar, like it’s supposed to.
These are seemingly meaningless moments of life.
But perhaps when those moments come, if I allow my imagination to play with the idea that there is a reason why my coffee tastes like a peach, I might be able to see other slices of reality.
I’m not only experiencing the thing in front of me, the coffee, but my neural network is lighting up all over my brain, moving around like an aerial view of LA freeways.
Other tastes are evoked in my memory, other flavors linked to emotional experiences throughout my life.
When my coffee tastes like a peach, all times of my life from birth to death come together.
The peach is a wormhole, and it allows me to time travel.
I’m writing a collection of essays called Writers are Witches.
The pieces are somewhat thematically connected (mostly about physics, mysticism, and the craft of writing), but the title comes from my belief that great poets, that is, ALL great creative writers enter into realms of the imagination most people do not have access to without guidance by a spirit, i.e, the writer.
These imaginary worlds have been identified by mystics and hermetic thinkers as the astral plane, the underworld, infinite field, a place not in space wherein one can have conversations with angels.
In other words, to be a writer is to be a mystic or a witch, one who accesses these realms and often channels energy from within and releases it into our world, usually for a particular purpose.
When I read a good novel, like something by Toni Morrison, I’m enchanted.
The etymology is pretty obvious, yes?
Enchant. “To cast a spell upon (often one that attracts or charms).”
Obviously chant is to intone something over and over, rhythmically, poetically, like how writers follow language and end up with new rhythms and incantations and innew places that surprise even the writer.
I interviewed philosopher Philip Goff about his book Galileo’s Error, for Words on a Wire, to air in our 10th or 11th or 12th season (I’m nor sure which) in September 2021.
It’s about the Hard Problem of consciousness, which is the question of how a physical system, the body, can create conscious experience, or qualia, like the taste of a carne asada burrito, or that first glimpse into the eyes of your lover.
Scientists have three major solutions to the Hard Problem, one of which is Duality, that the mind and the brain are separate entities. In this theory, consciousness may be correlated to brain activity, but it’s separate from the material brain. We have a soul, if you will. We are eternal beings, or at the very least connected to the Eternal, through our consiousness.
This is the belief held by most people and rejected by most scientists.
Scientists hate duality.
They want a grand unified Theory of Everything.
The two other approaches either say that consciousness doesn’t exist at all (Materialism) or that consciousness is a fundamental element of the universe (Panpsychism), as fundamental to the workings of reality as space and time and matter. I like this idea.
The Hard Problem will not be easily solved, but I’ve noticed a lot of physicists, who speak on the level of math, are getting into neuroscience these days, perhaps to escape the academic myopia that tends to pop up in science departments throughout history. I’m not saying they have to beware of string theory Nazis or whatever is going on in their department, just that there is solid evidence that even science departments can be so subjective as to ostracize those seeking unconventional explanations that don’t conform with popular theories. That’s all I’m saying.
Whether or not it has anything to do with the physicists, neuroscience is discovering new mathematical descriptions of brain activity and correlations with consciousness.
They can brilliantly express equations that depict brain activity during conscious experience, but they cannot explain WHY brain activity produces my experience of biting into that juicy carne asada burrito.
They can’t explain what I, Daniel Chacón, or you, are experiencing right now, and why.
This hard problem is to neuroscience what the unity problem is to physicists, uniting relativity with quantum theory.
Goff writes, “We’re still waiting for the Newton of consciousness to produce the simple equation that will capture the connection between body and mind. “
When it comes to who we are, science has not been able to help us answer that question, at least not yet.
Scientists can explain HOW we are this way, but not WHY.
Goff claims that Galileo, who was the first one to establish math as the language of science, never intended to describe the quality of experience, but rather the quantitative experience of things.
How things behave, not why.
How a carne asada burrito behaves in relation to other matter and space and time, but not the intrinsic nature of a delicious burrito. Or taco for that matter.
(By stating burrito, you can tell a lot about me, that I’m a Chicanx person, as we may favor burritos over the tacos that might be the first choice of our Mexicanx neighbors. )
The problem with scientists trying to explain qualia is that they don’t have the language for it. What is the mathematical equation for my experience of biting into a juicy mango?
Or for that matter what is the equation that describes my intrinsic nature?
That doesn’t mean they don’t daydream, “imagine” things in the sense that they picture what they want, like a new car or a great vacation, or they picture what they don’t want, like their lover leaving them for another lover.
In that sense people “imagine.”
But that’s not imagination.
Those are thoughts and patterns of familiar narratives or cultural memes that help you understand your own reality, that which filter out phenomenon that doesn’t serve your world view or provide answers that you need for immediate problems.
It’s a perfect neuroscience metaphor that the older you get the more the right side of your brain deteriorates, that is, the creative half, much faster than the left side, the logical side, the mathematical side, the side that recognizes patterns.
The left side of the brain stays younger longer, so even if you’re experiencing cognitive decline, your ability to recognize patterns could allow you to appear to others as wise.
Even one who suffers from Alzheimer’s, like Ronald Reagan, can be president. Elkhonon Goldberg calls this wisdom, or at least claims that part of wisdom is this instant access to patterns accumulated over a lifetime.
However, there are some older people who may not have done a lot of challenging neural activity in their lives, so by the time they get old their patterns are limited, and they can live in a small world of possibilities, shrinking and becoming parodies of their younger selves.
The older we get, the more we use pattern recognition over imagination. As a young man Einstein imagined himself chasing after light beams, as an older man he tried to find the patterns that would connect the known forces of physics, to find the unified theory.
His failure was one of imagination.
I’m getting old, pushing on 60, so I guess what would make me a legal senior citizen. I’m a fiction writer, one who loves to spend time in imaginary worlds and who is willing to believe as I’m walking through a forest that if a tree moves and startles me, there could a spirit or consciousness in the tree. Sometimes the spirit tells me it’s name.
I spent much of my life reading and teaching fiction, so now a series of patterns come to me about the tree, multiple possible narratives, some of which I’ve encountered before in books and movies, even if I don’t remember them.
Others come from personal narrative patterns, playing in a fruitless mulberry tree when I was a kid, or afraid to walk under the tree in my grandmother’s backyard because of the wasp nests.
When I write I try to let the language take me into the story, but sometimes I have to fight patterns.
My fight becomes the rhythm of the voice against the patterns that I consciously or unconsciously recognize belong to the spirit of the tree, that come from previous patterns I’ve been exposed to, even when it’s not about a tree.
One of the immediate patterns might be that the tree is an ancient sage, a friendly spirit that will give me advice and guide me in the right direction, one of Joseph Campbell’s archetypes, or the Mentor Archetype in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey.
Another is that the tree could be a guard, a gatekeeper, trying to prevent my protagonist from going deeper into the forest.
Immediately story patterns come to me, and my struggle at this point in my writer’s life is to fight those patterns.
Or maybe fight isn’t the correct word. Negotiate.
To understand that patterns in all phenomenon will come to the writer, but that doesn’t mean they’re good ideas.
They could be cliches.
I teach fiction, and new fiction writers turn in stories that are based on patterns of cultural narratives. They write poor imitations of Harry Potter stories or stories about dragons that are influenced by Game of Thrones.
When they get a story idea, which they take for imagination, they don’t realize it’s a pattern. This is true of even the talented fiction writers, those who are going to go onto to write great works. Their first stories sound a lot like Sandra Cisneros or Junot Diaz or William Faulkner.
The older you get the more patterns you have for every story idea, but you still need to follow language, and the voice, a spirit, will choose and sample elements from multiple patterns to make your story a little better.
Some students in my Writer and The Brain class turned me on to The Storytelling Animal by Johnathan Gottschall, which I am halfway through and am loving.
Here’s a great quote:
“From Science, I argue, can help us make sense of storytelling. But some say that science is a grand story (albeit with hypothesis testing) that emerges from our need to make sense of the world. The storylike character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe. . .”
And this is what I am trying to say with The Poet and the Mind-Brain :
Theoretical branches of science, found mostly in the unification problem in physics and the hard problem in neuroscience seek to tell two of the most fundamental stories humans need to hear, how did it all begin, and who am I?
This is why writers are like scientists.
These are the two stories that impel us to write, albeit articulated differently according to the writer.
Instead of wondering how the universe began, the poet might wonder why does my heart feel so bad? Or why does the school bus stopping on the corner under the oak tree make me want to cry?
I would argue poetic details are microcosms of the two fundamental stories we seek to understand.
Poets matter, because we seek to know the unknowable, and we will never stop until we find that ineffable elegant equation that says it all.
He did some evil, messed up stuff, and he was incredibly misogynist and racist.
But he also had intense moments of focus, flashes of genius, wherein he was so absorbed into metaphysics that he was able to create his own religion, Thelema, whose concepts remain influential even today in esoteric communities.
His influence is rooted in many traditions of witchcraft, including Gerald Gardener’s version of Wicca.
I put a K at the end of the word magick to distinguish between the practice of magic, that is witchcraft, sorcery, esoteric practice, and magic the way we use the word colloquially.
If I say, My day was magic! –My visit to Mexico City was magic !–
My date night with my wife was magic!– I don’t mean someone cast a spell.
Magic can means many things, but when I use the word magick, it means one thing:
The practice of directing energy from one source or many into manifesting some goal in the material world, the practice of channeling energy, an action is rooted in a basic concept of reality, which has traditionally been articulated As above, so below.
Magick uses and manipulates energies (sprits, quantum fields, faith and prayer) to achieve material goals. Magick is the ability to focus.
That’s what I mean by magick.
It doesn’t necessarily mean witchcraft.
It is the act of manipulating and using energy, often without our conscious awareness that we are doing it.
That’s what writers do.
That’s what mystics do.
When Saint Teresa allowed her body to seep into ecstasy, wherein her flesh trembled and she felt as if she were corporally connected to God, that was channeling energy.
That is what I mean by magick.
Every good work of art starts with Energy, Desire, Will –with unformed energy that does not yet have image or meaning. Pure energy.
The term ambulance chaser culturally indicates a lawyer who is looking for somebody that was injured, so they could file a lawsuit, especially if the victim is someone who falls at a Walmart, or any big company that can be sued.
Poets are ambulance chasers too, but on a metaphorical, abstract and much more positive level.
We chase the possibility of death, we pursue the stories and voices of the dead, because even if we are not consciously aware of it, when the possibility of death is present, there too, like Lorca says, you will find the Duende, the dark spirit of art that gives tension and depth to our stories and poems.
We chase dead, and when there is a possibility of death, we run at it like a lawyer chases an ambulance.
It’s not an accident or random that the deeper you go into a metaphysical question, when you share your insights with others they ask you, What have you been smoking?
Deep thought is somehow connected to getting high. Why do we think this way?
The answer I think can be found in looking at a phenomenon everybody is familiar with: The Runner’s High.
What happens when you run or work out long enough, you can reach a certain point where endorphins are released along with some of those brain candies like dopamine and Endocannabinoids, those neurotransmitters that also spark when you use cannabis.
You get a good feeling, strength, invulnerability, exuberance, like you can’t feel any other way except using drugs.
I’m a runner, but I’ve never experienced Runner’s High.
I run (or try to) five days a week just to keep healthy, but I have never ran so much and so long that I’ve gotten high. The best I can do is 30 minutes, and I run so slow that old men with wobbly legs and knobby zip pass me by.
Oh wait, I am an old man with wobbly legs.
I may not be athletic enough to have experienced the Runner’s High, but I’ve experienced the Thinker’s High.
But I like to call it the Writer’s High.
And it is just as a legitimate physiological experience as the Runner’s High.
Most writers have experienced the Thinker’s High.
Even if we’re not sitting on our butts writing a story or a poem, we understand that it takes free time in order to expand our creativity. We take walks. We have moments of silence. We sit by a window.
And sometimes, when we’re taking a walk, we go so deeply into an idea that we don’t even register where it is that we are, and I’m certain that at this time the same hormones and neurotransmitters can be released as in the Runner’s High.
The ideas are so stunning that we forget where we are, and when we become aware again we find ourselves on an intersection in the city or a crossroad in the country, and it’s like we’re in a brand-new landscape. We feel exhilaration, a rush of well-being that connects us to the sublime.
We feel a level of euphoria that we cannot get any other way, except for maybe drugs, at least the first couple of times.
This is the Thinker’s High.
The Writer’s High.
And writers are addicted to it.
Sometimes it happens when we’re deeply rooted in thought, but it can also happen when we’re completely absorbed in an ordinary moment. It could happen while washing dishes or cutting vegetables, watching as the knife goes chop-chop-chop.
These moments sustain us and keep us writing, because the high is incredible, and they are often responsible for our best work, our best ideas.
How do you induce the Runner’s High?
You run or exercise for a very long time, usually over 30 minutes, maybe an hour at the least, and keep doing it over and over again.
How do you induce the Writer’s High?
Take time to think, and thinking doesn’t mean a structure of thought to solve a problem, although it could; it means following your imagination, your daydream, keep going with it, wherever it takes you. Follow your language. Follow your spirit.
You might write something so good that your friends will say, What were you smoking?!
Almost every day, at least several times a week, I ask myself large, trite questions like a stoned teenager discovering philosophy for the first time. I ask myself, Why are we here?
Do I have an eternal soul?
These are questions which mystics and physicists explore, and it is an exhilarating activity that often leads you to the Thinker’s High .
In The God Particle, Lederman writes about the moments all physicists experience when they explore the big questions, but in the quote below, I took out the word “physicist” and replaced it with poet, but in italics, so you know that it’s me.
The life of a poet is filled with anxiety, pain, hardship, tension, attacks of hopelessness, depression, and discouragement. But these are punctuated by flashes of exhilaration, laughter, joy, and exultation. These epiphanies come at unpredictable times. Often they are generated simply by the sudden understanding of something new and important, something beautiful, that no one else has revealed.
Asking these large questions, as silly as it may seem, is something great writers do consciously or unconsciously, and their poems and stories are like elegant equations.
Like scientists, writers want to express reality.
We want to write a haiku so intense that it will transform the reader like Borges’ Aleph into all points of space and time at once. You will get a glimpse.
I love what haikus can do to you, transform you to another space and time. They bring you there –for a flash!–then bring you back.
In my opinion, below are the two most elegant Haikus ever written:
In the ancient pond
A frog jumps into
The sound of water
Imagine a haiku that brings you everywhere in space-time at once, all places and moments .
The more Reality there is in a work, that is, the ability to transcend space-time, the more beautiful the experience of the poem.
As waste of the time it may seem, asking big questions may help a writer in moments of creativity to enter into other realms of the imagination.
And imagination is an entrance into other universes. Imagination is our wormhole into places not rooted in our experience in time and space, but which may very well allow us to glimpse the thoughts of God.
The Talmud says every good deed creates an angel.
I believe every good poem creates an angel, too, because its elegant use of language releases intense spiritual, intellectual, and emotional energy into the mind of the reader.
But beware, because if every good poem creates an angel, does every bad poem create a demon?
Probably every good poem makes an angel and a demon, and the fight they have is reflected in the work as tension.
Every good poem comes from questions that cannot be reconciled.
Why are we here?
What is the meaning of life?
I think it’s important to understand that if a writer sets out to write a poem about the meaning of life, it won’t be a very good poem. The poem most likely won’t create any demons; rather it’ll make mischievous little imps who will irritate the person reading the poem.
Do I contradict myself?
I’m not saying a writer should set out to write a poem about the big questions, but I am saying that everything we experience on a visceral, emotional, and intellectual level has its roots in questions that can never be answered but that we cannot live without pondering. And it would be well for the writer to take time just to think about the big things, the corny questions, What is my purpose? Who created us? Who has the best burritos in El Paso ?
These questions, pondered and played with while you’re taking a walk, while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store with your device firmly shoved into your pocket or purse, are fun questions to imagine. They can lead your mind away from ordinary thinking.
And like a stoned teenager asking himself the big questions, the answers you imagine might even make you giggle.
Other people in line at the grocery store might look at you funny, but who cares?
Bartender puts down a single napkin and asks her, What can I get you?
The title isn’t a grammatical error, the subject and verb agree, because the poet who walks into the bar –I picture someone badass like Natalie Scenters-Zapico, confident, meeting up with other poets for dinner and drinks during AWP—is also the scientist and the witch.
Maybe in some ways, or like the poet Andrés Montoya used to tease me for saying, on some levels all poets are scientists and practice magick (why a k?).
Poets are like scientists (on some level they are scientists) because they have a curiosity about how things work, especially the brain-mind, what motivates people, how they feel, see, taste and connect ideas in meaningful ways. The best poets seem to soak their feet into the intellectual waters of sundry subjects. Toni Morrison dipped into the Nag Hammadi, which are beautifully creative texts reinforcing the gnostic point of view of God and Reality. Poe studied physics. Borges studied Kabbalah. Pizarnik studied philosophy.
Poets are neuroscientists.
Poets are witches.
But first, let me define what I mean by “Poet.”
I remember having a conversation with my colleague, the poet and translator Rosa Alcalá.
She told me it irritates her when people write emails addressing “poets and writers.”
Rosa is a working-class Latina from Paterson, New Jersey, and when she’s defending a position she sometimes switches into street mode, the don’t-fuck-with-me nod of the head.
She tells me, Are they saying I’m not a writer? How are poets not writers?
I agree, and ever since our conversation I rarely make the distinction between poets and writers.
We are one.
By poet I don’t mean only those who write verse. I mean all creative writers.
Everyone knows that there was a time in our human story when narratives were told only in verse, and verse was used only to tell stories, but somewhere along the plot-line of humanity, what God had put together –the storyteller and the poet — were torn asunder.
It was not a natural or inevitable split, so it makes sense that by poets we can mean all creative writers, poets, fiction writers, memoirists.
We’re all poets. All creative writers, all genres. Poets.
(By the way, what is the collective noun for poets?? You have a murder of crows, an army of ants, perhaps a star of poets?)
So a poet is a writer.
The term neuroscientist, as it appears in the joke, refers to scientists in general, to the methods and the value system, especially those sciences involved in the quest to unite all of reality, such as physics and studies of the mind-brain duality.
Scientists seek to unite, to offer one elegant equation about reality, the universe, the way things work.
They say that the holy grail of physics is how Quantum mechanics, the study of the subatomic world of electrons and strange quarks can have the same laws as the theories of relativity, spacetime and the planets and the universe.
The two areas of science don’t agree, and if someone can come up with a ToE, something Einstein tried but failed at most of his adult life, they will know the thoughts of god.
That’s one of the most famous quotes in all physics, Einstein saying, I want to know the thoughts of God. Everything else is detail.
The scientist who walks into this bar, who is also a poet, is the kind of scientist that believes reality can be explained through math, i.e. language, using the most elegant equation. A haiku of reality such as
Ever since Galileo math has been the language of science, and if it cannot be expressed in math, it is not science, it’s philosophy, metaphysics. What makes neuroscience fun to follow is how math is being used to explain consciousness, our behavior, our unpredictability, the mystery of our experiences.
A book I highly recommend, readable for nonscientists like me is The Forgetting Machine by Rodrigo Quian Quíroga.
He created a mathematical model of neuronal activity and can pinpoint with precision how neurons fire when a concept is brought up in the mind, like Jennifer Aniston.
He found that there is a Jennifer Aniston neuron in your brain, and it serves only to represent her and what she means to you, and every time it fires, he can chart — again with mathematical precision — what other neurons will fire as a result.
He’s from Argentina, Buenos Aires, having studied physics, but like a lot of neuroscientists today, he became interested in the brain.
Since his emphasis is memory, he has found a connection with Borges and has written a book about him and memory, which I’ve yet to read, but I’ve ordered it and will get back to you on what I think.
So a poet is a neuroscientist.
What about the witch?
Why are poets witches?
In a nutshell:
When we follow language into imaginary places and possibilities, we travel outside of our bodies, like soul travel. We often enter into the zone, where matter and spacetime disappear. This is well known among writers.
In other language, we enter into the astral plain, where we’re met with guides (voices) and demons (rhythms and incantation) and we are shown entirely new worlds in which anything can happen.
Poets travel the various levels of reality in our imagination, and the more we are willing to allow language to lead us into alternate universes, the more we are able to see beyond the ordinary. This is why some fundamental Christian sects claim that free writing is evil, because you’re channeling demons, or more accurately daemons. Muses. Duende.
Do you know how long it could take practitioners of esoteric knowledge to enter into some of the realms that poets have visited?