Two Red Things and a Theory of Mysticism

With the old white car on it’s last legs (or last wheels?), we finally purchased a new one. I spoke sad words over the Honda to wish it well on it’s journey to Mexico, which is surely the only place it can be sold now. Then I drove it to the dealership to leave as my trade in and picked up my Toyota. Starting the old car proved to be very difficult that morning. I would not be surprised if they weren’t able to move it after I left it there. I am pleased that I drove it to the very last possible second, and squeezed as much use from it as possible.

So now I drive a shiny, certified used, 2008, red Corolla. I am not a person who would normally buy a red car, but you get what you get. I am beyond pleased.

I needed a bold red painting for the living room, so I decided to make it myself. I’ve painted a few canvases in the past with mild success. I can’t say that any of them were particularly good. But I think The Giant Flower has turned out acceptably well. I will be hanging it over the couch this evening.

I discovered something interesting while painting it, which is going to send me off on a wild and possibly controversial tangent:

Some of you may remember that I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I listened to a story while working on this picture. Now I find that studying various areas of this flower (the curve of a segment of a particular petal) will evoke mental images for me of the scenes I was hearing as I worked on it. Mixing together a certain shade of green calls up a few phrases of dialogue. The black areas of the picture make me think of chapter 2.

I’ve experienced this kind of narrative deja vu before while walking through an area I where I was previously plugged into an ipod book. For example, I’ll revisit Walmart after finishing a story, walk through the produce section, and think “Ah, this is where they stormed the castle”. These associations fade quickly, but I’ve never had an entire story associated with and visually compressed into such a small space. This painting is, for the time being a map (or perhaps a sigil?) for an imaginary world.

Which makes me wonder how much this constant audiobook consumption is affecting my perception of reality at large. Surely something lingers in my subconscious after the vivid imagery has faded. It disturbs me greatly to think these authors of fiction and fantasy are shaping the way I see the world so viscerally.

I am a person who is fascinated with mysticism and the esoteric. In the same way that a person can boost their self-esteem through affirmations and therapy, I believe that we are able to manipulate our subconscious–and, therefore, the course of our lives–through the practice of ritual. Sometimes ritual affects us in broad ways we don’t realize (which is why it is very important to be wary of the set of religious beliefs to which one ascribes). But here is a place where science and faith intersect for pragmatic use. Through action and attention, we can slowly build up associations within our mind that make us into better people. Or, if we aren’t careful, worse ones.

If I were to bombard myself with peaceful, loving, compassionate words and sounds while making another small drawing, could I later use that drawing to help me evoke peaceful feelings in times of frustration and anger? Could a person program for themselves associations with a variety of physical talismans to aid memory and mood, such as a symbol to draw on the top of exams that a person has spent time associating with calmness, clarity, and the tested material? My experience with these audiobooks indicate to me that the answer is Yes. Like Pavlov’s dog, the bell can make us salivate.

However, this kind of focused construction of associations isn’t practical. It seems almost like hoodoo and superstition. Sigils and talismans, ha! But if it is a kind of magic, it is very individual. No item in itself is a symbol for anything, but all things have the potential to be symbols for everything. Nothing has inherent power over us, except that which we give it.

I could write a great deal more about how the rituals of our culture shape our identity, and how the rites of passage and holidays are so fundamental to our larger concept of family and friends. But what interests me at the moment is how the rituals we invent and perform for ourselves can influence our individual lives. Some eat comfort foods when sad. Some buy things to celebrate. Some pray for help when discouraged. Some exercise to let off steam. With all these patterns so easily observable, is there a way for us to more effectively harness the power of our subconscious?

Some of you might say “Yes, and it is called religion.” I’m not here to criticize, but in my experience the hulking beasts of the organized faiths can do us as much harm as good. I need only look at the guilt and pain fundamentalism has inflicted on my family members. While good things can be gleaned from such pathways, the larger establishment isn’t one-size-fits-all. So, what’s The Answer?

There isn’t one. Everyone has to find it for themselves; that’s the point. Your individual talismans and sigils cannot be mine, which is why the world is full of fanatics and apologists. To you, the flower painting above is just a flower. Whatever your beliefs, whatever your rituals, all of these things only hold the power in your life that you allow them. Even if you do not actively charge a symbol with meaning, meaning will inevitably build up around the things you surround yourself with.

So. This language of symbol and associations is the way I personally think about mysticism. Knowledge that cannot be expressed by words, and may or may not be objectively true. Put dully, my thoughts on a “subjective understanding” of the world centers around a theory of conditioning. But does a conditioned response make the power of the mystical experience any less true or valuable?

Of course not.

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  1. Brian Sullivan
    Posted February 3, 2009 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Very interesting post! I have observed the “linking” effect as well, sometimes with audiobooks, but honestly more often with video games and music.

    Something else I’ve observed (at least in my own experience) is that these “sigils” tend to kind of… collate? What I mean is, a whole group of things (a video game, a set of songs, a book, even particular foods) that I experienced around the same time will all form associative ties to each other.

    So, when I hear something from Coheed and Cambria’s third album, I think of a particular stage my WoW character was in. When I eat Oreos and milk, I think of reading the Ender series.

    All of these associations from a particular time in my life pile up to give that period a unique “memory flavor.” I can’t come up with a better word to describe the general “feeling of life at the time” that is recalled when I think about any of the things my mind has associated together for that time.

    Does any of that make sense? Have you experienced that “grouping effect” too?

  2. esunasoul
    Posted February 3, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Yes! And I very much like the way you put it.

    Perfect example: songs that were on the radio when I was in highschool. I can’t hear something like “One Week” without getting a flood of Airline Viking memories (mostly of things surrounding marching band, but also other random sensory experiences like the smell of the hallways at school). I remember McDonald’s chicken nuggets, cut grass, the image of blank looseleaf paper, the weight of an over-stuffed backpack, the listless afternoons watching Toonami… on and on and on. And all from hearing a silly song.

    My years at UH had a very different flavor, as did the ones at NSU-S, and now the ones here in Austin. But before highschool, all the years have the same vagueness, the same bland memory flavor…

    But you know, typing that has me wondering if the reason my more distant memories are so vague is because I don’t have as many association triggers readily available to me. I’d probably have a better feel for those different eras if I spent time walking around the different schools I went to.

  3. Rachel
    Posted February 20, 2009 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Love the car… you guys gonna be in town any time soon?

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