Abstract Notions
Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

Pleasantly Vexed With Erik Satie


In the Fall 2014 issue of Utne Reader, I shared my thoughts on daydreaming in a column titled “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” Three years later, it’s still one of the more popular posts we add to our Facebook page, and I like to think it’s because more people are recognizing the benefits of setting their smart phones aside on a regular basis and allowing their mind to wander.

Since then, I’ve begun meditating, floating in a sensory-deprivation tank, and participating in other activities where the sole purpose is to simply be aware of — but not attached to — the moment at hand. To that end, I was very excited to discover on the morning of May 5 that a rare performance of Erik Satie’s fascinating piano piece Vexations was taking place that day at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City.

For those not familiar with the piece, it’s a very short but peculiar tune that Satie wrote in 1893 with no apparent intention of having it performed. Featuring an unresolved melody and a score note by Satie suggesting the piece be repeated 840 times “very slowly,” it’s not surprising that it took the likes of American composer John Cage and his avant-garde compatriots to finally give Vexations its first public performance in 1963. With a rotation of 12 pianists, Cage and company completed the 840 repetitions of the piece in 20 hours and effectively sparked a rite of passage for future generations of contemporary classical pianists. The longest non-stop solo performance of the piece was 35 hours(!) by Nicolas Horvath in 2012.


In the Kemper performance, pianist Michael Kirkendoll performed the piece for 12 hours straight while playing inside contemporary artist Rashid Johnson’s magnificent installation piece Antoine’s Organ. I had the pleasure of experiencing 35 minutes of the performance, and I’m still gleaning fascinating insight from what I witnessed (see video below).

For some, the unnerving quality of the tune is enough to drive them mad. A 2013 article in The New Yorker cited the experience of Australian pianist Peter Evans, who quit playing the piece after 595 repetitions in 1970 when he was overcome by evil thoughts and hallucinations. Kirkendoll fared much better, and by all accounts so did many others who spent some time meditating in the space that day, myself included.  For me, the unresolved nature of the melody makes it difficult to memorize, and the nuances of each repetition are different enough to keep the piece from becoming tedious. Instead, the ambient quality of the music serves as the ideal soundtrack for oscillating between meditation and daydreaming. I left the space relaxed and with more sensory awareness, much as I do after a floating session.

Of course, there are many who wonder why anyone would want to put themselves through such an experience — as a performer or a listener. For a piece that’s considered the Mt. Everest of solo piano pieces, though, the answer is simple: “Because it’s there.”

A Time for Being Sick


Finding contentment in the most unlikely places.

Part of my morning routine includes reading a chapter or two of the Tao Te Ching—the ancient book of Taoist wisdom attributed to the mythical Chinese sage Lao-tzu. I particularly like Stephen Mitchell’s modern translation from 1998 and find something in it to meditate on nearly every day. Recently, the following lines from Chapter 29 came in handy when I caught a particularly nasty virus:

There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;

A stupid source of pride for me has always been defiance in the face of illness; to keep working and pushing myself as if I’m healthy. If I feel like I’m getting sick, I’ll prepare for it by taking extra work home just in case I’m not able to make it into the office the next day, and then work just as hard from home when I should be resting. This time was different, though.

In the past, the “wasted” time of a day spent in bed would have gnawed at me as I’d think about all of the work left undone. But this time, the lines from Chapter 29 came to mind, specifically: “a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted.” One of the many benefits I’ve gained from studying the Tao Te Ching is a profound respect for the duality of this existence. In order to truly appreciate being healthy, I recognize that I must also know what it means to be sick. And allowing myself to be sick involves accepting that it will take time for the illness to run its course and for my body to return to health. Even though I didn’t turn on my laptop, I don’t remember ever having a more productive sick day. My job that day was simply to be sick and I did it well.  

Along with giving my body and mind an overdue day of rest, I caught a glimpse of something else that day: contentment. While ambition and desire can be great motivators for success, I’ve found they are also the sources of disappointment and dissatisfaction when we fail to balance them. They train us to view every moment as an opportunity for advancement, but chide us when we hesitate or fall short. They keep our eyes on the future at the expense of appreciating the here and now. When you’re always thinking about what’s next, contentment becomes an illusion that’s just around the corner instead of a reality that’s right in front of your face.

It seems strange to find contentment in being sick, but that’s what happened when I switched off my ambition and desire for a bit. For me, it’s just another example of what’s possible when I slow down and allow myself to experience the present moment. Being sick obviously isn’t as fun as being healthy, but it’s still a reminder that I’m alive.

Photo courtesy Sundaram Ramaswamy, licensed under Creative Commons

Meditating on a More Meaningful Life


How daily breathing awareness is changing my life.

The ability to multitask is considered an asset in the workplace. I’ve often found myself drafting an email, reading incoming messages, editing an article, and browsing art for a layout, all seemingly at once. I thought this meant I was pretty close to being as efficient and productive as possible; imagine my surprise when meditation showed me otherwise.

I’ve been meditating every morning since December. My guide is a new book by Buddhist writer Lodro Rinzler titled Sit Like a Buddha, and it’s the most accessible beginner’s guide to meditation I’ve read. Rinzler focuses on the calm-abiding meditation called shamatha; which, as he describes it, “wakes you up to what is going on in this very moment, through training in paying attention to something that embodies this moment: the breath.”

After about three weeks of 10-minute meditation every morning, I started to feel calmer and less anxious over the course of the day, which motivated me to keep doing it. I’ve since upped those 10 minutes to 15 minutes per session, and have noticed that I’ve become a better listener in conversations, more focused when reading, and far less prone to general distraction. In fact, I’m getting more done now at work than I ever did with my old approach of multitasking. If an email needs to be written I set my focus on that alone and if something distracts me, I’m quicker to recognize the distraction, which brings me back to the moment. Sooner than I know it, a concise and coherent email has been sent and I’m on to the next task. I still have as much to do every day, but I’m no longer frantically bouncing back and forth between a growing list of half-finished tasks that eventually overwhelm me. Instead, I’m fully engaged in the moment, rather than multitasking it away—an awareness that is starting to shape my life outside of the office, too.

Before beginning the shamatha practice, Rinzler asks the reader to establish a specific intent for why they want to start meditating. Mine was “to become more connected to myself, others, and the universe.” I considered less ambitious intents such as relaxation or stress-relief, but something about the notion of connection resonated with me. I realize now that the source of that particular intent was my intuition—a voice that I could barely hear anymore over the cacophony of distraction that comes with living in the 21st century. With meditation, I’ve been able to quiet the peripheral noise and listen to the voice in my head again; the voice I know I can trust to distinguish the decisions that shape a truly meaningful life from the ones that inevitably leave me feeling empty and aimless.

If you don’t believe that 10 minutes of daily breathing awareness can lead to those kinds of realizations, all I can say is give it a shot; they just may become the most important 10 minutes you spend every day.

Christian Williams is the editor of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View his art and listen to his music at www.christianwwilliams.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Wiertz, licensed under Creative Commons.

Is Ayahuasca Right for You?

chris kilham palo santo

Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook. Photo by Jeff Skeirik.  

Reviewing The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook, Chris Kilham’s backpack guide to the healing powers of the sacred Amazonian plant brew.

My first encounter with ayahuasca was through William S. Burroughs. That is to say, several years ago I read The Yage Letters, which was Burroughs’ collected correspondence with poet Allen Ginsberg as he traveled to the Amazon in search of the elusive “final fix.”

Since then, I’ve learned a great deal more about the powerful and mysterious plant-derived brew that goes by many different names. And while all accounts verify that you will, indeed, find the high that Burroughs was looking for through ayahuasca, others suggest there’s much more to glean from the experience; that the plant offers one enhanced self-awareness and even spiritual enlightenment.  

Chris Kilham is a medical plant expert, author, and educator who has participated in more than 80 ayahuasca ceremonies over the past eight years. Over that span, he has become one of the foremost advocates for the healing benefits of the ayahuasca space, and has recently compiled a comprehensive introduction to the experience in The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook. Kilham approaches ayahuasca from a perspective of ultimate respect, and often refers to the plant brew by its most reverential and descriptive name, La Medicina. For Kilham and many others, ayahuasca has been so positively life-changing, that he felt compelled to write the backpack guide so that others may also safely and effectively wade into the healing waters of the ayahuasca experience.

Kilham’s book couldn’t have come at a better time. Though knowledge of ayahuasca and its use as part of the South American shamanic tradition has been well-known in select circles for many years, it’s been a relatively recent development that the Sacred Vine has found a much wider and receptive audience. As public awareness grows, so has the ayahuasca tourism industry in places like Iquitos, Peru, and experienced ayahuasca journeyers like Kilham feel a responsibility to make sure that people know what they’re getting into. In the event that this is the first time you’ve read about ayahuasca, a recent Newsweek Q&A with Kilham is a good primer to what goes into the brew and what you might encounter—both physically and otherwise—when you enter the ayahuasca space.

Christian Williams discusses ayahuasca with Chris Kilham in the first episode of the Abstract Notions podcast. 

Known as The Medicine Hunter, Kilham has made a career out of traveling the world investigating the medicinal qualities of plants. As he describes in the Handbook, Kilham has been familiar with ayahuasca since reading about it in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he drank his first cup after realizing that he was having a difficult time overcoming the grief related to the passing of his mother. The first set of ceremonies helped him not only overcome that grief, but replenished his emotional energy and allowed him to reconnect with himself and loved ones. More than 80 ceremonies later, Kilham approaches ayahuasca as a way to stay balanced, and now incorporates meditation into the ceremony, which he says has helped him navigate the unpredictable psychedelic waters of the ayahuasca space as well as gain him even deeper access to the consciousness-expanding qualities of the plant.

Kilham’s extensive first-hand experience and his affable nature make him the ideal spokesperson for ayahuasca. As he describes it, the topic compels people to talk and ask a lot of questions, and his many conversations over the years revealed some common questions that weren’t being answered by the literature on ayahuasca up to that point. While there have been plenty of great books written on the topic, Kilham couldn’t find any that presented the information people were looking for in an accessible format, and he recognized a need for the Handbook.

Taking readers step-by-step through the process of ceremony, from the botanical basics of the brew to an orientation of the ceremonial space to sharing some of his most memorable journeys, Kilham’s book offers everything short of the experience itself. He also offers invaluable advice on how to differentiate between good shamans and bad shamans, and—most importantly—the medical risks one should be aware of before embarking on a journey. As he notes, the negative stories surrounding ayahuasca often involve either shady shamans or journeyers who don’t fully disclose what medications they might already be taking. In this regard, Kilham demystifies the less understood aspects of ayahuasca, and his book serves as an antidote to some of the ignorance associated with the plant and its purpose. Kilham is also quick to point out that while he fully endorses the safe and reverent use of ayahuasca, anyone considering drinking it in the United States should be aware that the brew is currently classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. In addition to being illegal, Kilham emphasizes in the book that setting (specifically, in the Amazon under the guidance of a trained shaman) is a major factor in determining whether or not one has a beneficial experience. While he acknowledges that it is possible to reap the emotionally-cleansing benefits of ayahuasca without being in the Amazon, the brew seems to be its most effective when paired with the natural setting and traditional rituals of the shamanic ayahuasca ceremony.

Personally, reading Kilham’s book made me even more interested in experiencing ayahuasca first-hand. While the Handbook answered pretty much every question I had about the experience, I still realized I was trying to answer the question, “Is ayahuasca right for me?” To help me figure that out, I spoke with Chris at length about his spiritual approach to the plant as well as the logistics of traveling to the Amazon and making sure you’re in safe hands. I found Chris’ responses to my questions so helpful that I thought they might help others, too, so I decided to turn the transcript of our conversation into the first episode of the Abstract Notions podcast, which you can listen to and download above.

Finding the Value in Ritual and Ceremony

Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey
Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey near Barcelona, Spain. 

The beauty and benefit of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma.

I have a new favorite perk that was recently installed in our breakroom: an ice cream vending machine. It doesn’t get much better than $1 for a Klondike bar whenever I feel like one.

Partly for the sake of my waistline, I’ve been reintroducing myself to ritual and ceremony. In this case, I’ve decided to reserve the Klondike bar for my personal celebration when we wrap up production of an issue. As I write this, I’m looking forward to the moment when this issue is sent to the printer and I’m able to sit quietly in my office for 10 minutes and enjoy the Klondike.

Going forward, I’m sure I’ll find it tempting to have an ice cream bar between deadlines, but I know that I’ll appreciate my ice cream bar a lot more if I maintain its special place in my life. It sounds silly, but it’s a simple way to make something I enjoy more meaningful.

I became reacquainted with ritual and ceremony this past October when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey outside of Barcelona. We went in the evening specifically for Vespers, which features Gregorian chant by the Benedictine monks who live there. It’d been a while since I’d spent time in a church, and watching the evening prayer service unfold reminded me of what I missed most about the faith of my youth: the familiarity and comfort of the liturgy, the feeling of singing in unison, and the opportunity for contemplation that being in a church provided. Above all, I remembered how those aspects of ritual and ceremony were essential in preparing my mind and body for the spiritual experience I was there to have. They served to establish my intent, clear my mind of distraction, and help me remain in the moment.

Feeling goosebumps as the monks chanted, I realized that while I’ve discarded the rigid dogmatism of my childhood faith, there’s still value to glean from applying certain aspects of ritual and ceremony to my life again. Though my definition of “God” couldn’t be much more different than the one I used growing up, my desire for a spiritual encounter with the divine is stronger than ever. When I take a walk in the woods, play music, paint a picture, dream, meditate, or float in a sensory deprivation tank, I know I’m seeking a connection with the divine. Each of those activities involves a specific, yet routine preparation that I’ve chosen to redefine as ritual. Some are as simple as changing into painting clothes or taking a shower, but no matter how banal they might be, I still find them to be effective invocations when I choose to see them that way.

For me, that’s part of the beauty of ritual and ceremony when separated from dogma; the only rules are my own.

Photo by Keith Roper, licensed under Creative Commons.

Everything in Moderation, Especially Facebook

facebook evolution

Ensuring that a technology designed to bring us closer together doesn't make us strangers to each other.

Several months ago, I shared my dismay at no longer being able to sit and do nothing due to a smartphone dependency. It’s been four months since that realization, and I’m happy to report that I’m finding it much easier to disconnect from the phone and plug in to the real world around me.

This recently became apparent when my wife and I spent a week in Spain. Unable to use the dataplans on our iPhones seemed at first to be an inconvenience, but quickly revealed itself to be a blessing. Our idle time waiting for the Metro or relaxing on a park bench was spent daydreaming and people-watching rather than Facebook surfing. It’s entirely possible that some of our best memories from the trip wouldn’t exist had we been able to distract ourselves with the digital universe.

For my wife, the experience really hit home. In the month since we’ve been back she’s had little desire to log into Facebook. While I’ve noticed that she still pops in occasionally, she barely scrolls through her feed before quickly losing interest. A week away not only helped her realize how much of a daily distraction it had become, but also how unfulfilling a connection it is for keeping in touch with people.

She’s aware, though, that her decision to cut Facebook out of her life may come with a cost: knowing what’s going in the lives of friends and family. While most Facebook posts simply document everyday details or massage someone’s ego, the ease with which one can share exciting news, wedding engagements, birth announcements, or any other milestone through a quick post makes it plain to see that Facebook has become the most efficient way to communicate with all of our loved ones at once. And when distance keeps people from spending real time together, there’s no denying that Facebook is often the next best thing. I’m even aware of real-life friendships that have started as a result of being introduced through Facebook.

But I also sense that for many, Facebook is becoming a substitute for keeping in “real” touch with one another. A good friend of ours recently relayed a surreal experience in which someone they were having a live conversation with referred them to their Facebook page to read the details they didn’t feel like repeating at the time. In this instance, a technology designed to bring us all closer together is actually more effective at making us strangers to each other.

While this cultural disconnect due to social media isn't a new development, I appreciate the reminder that it's happening; my wife’s decision to significantly cut back has led me to be more conscious of the real-life relationships I want to have and the real-life effort that’s required to do so. I think Facebook is great for sharing funny pictures, interesting articles, and inspiring information, but when “liking” someone becomes the prerequisite for knowing what to talk about with that person in real life, we’ve lost the rudder.

For those of us who remember what life was like before the digital age, achieving balance with Facebook is just the tip of the iceberg. As our society becomes even more connected (and dependent) on technology, regular reality checks like the one my wife made will become even more important if we hope to maintain real connections to ourselves, each other, and the natural world we’re apart of. It’s the only way we’ll ensure that technology serves us and not the other way around.

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader. Contact him at cwilliams@utne.com or follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. He also paints and makes music; check out his work at www.christianwwilliams.com

Photo courtesy Khalid Albaih, licensed under Creative Commons.

William Basinski and the Music of 9/11

 william basinski disintegration loops 

There has been a lot of music inspired by or associated with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but perhaps none is as poignant or thought-provoking as William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops.  

I tend to associate impressionable events in my life with music. Sometimes it’s the music that I heard during the event, other times it’s music that reminds me of the event. Whatever the case, the memory isn’t complete unless there’s a soundtrack.

When it comes to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I remember every moment of that day better than any other, but I don’t recall listening to any specific music. For a while, the soundtrack of that memory consisted only of breaking news updates and uncertain conversations with friends and family. And while the number of songs inspired by the event is almost enough to constitute its own genre, none of them truly captured my reaction to the event. That is, until I heard The Disintegration Loops by experimental composer William Basinski:  

What you’re hearing in the above piece, “Dlp 1.1,” is a continuous loop of music that Basinski recorded on magnetic tape in the 1980s, and attempted to convert to digital in the months leading up to September 11. As the story goes, the nearly 20-year-old tape deteriorated on the spindle with each pass, and over the course of the hour-long composition, you can hear the music slowly disintegrate. From a musical perspective, it may seem impossible to appreciate one six-second piece of music looped continuously for over an hour, but I invite you to give it a shot. I think you’ll be surprised by how complex and heartbreakingly beautiful the piece becomes over time. Upon its release in 2002, Basinski relayed that this was what he listened to on the morning of September 11 as he watched and videotaped the Twin Towers collapse and the dust billow across lower Manhattan from his rooftop vantage point. For that reason, it’s become permanently associated with the event, and has often been the music of choice in commemoration events.

Considering the story behind its creation and association, the obvious reaction for listeners is melancholy and sadness. For me, though, it’s a bit different. When I first heard this piece, I was unaware of the back story. My immediate reaction was one of nostalgia; a very specific moment from my childhood that I hadn’t thought about until hearing this. I was five years old at the time, and it was a hot, summer day at my grandparents’ house. My grandma was just about to take me and a couple of the neighborhood kids to McDonald’s for lunch, and I knew that meant I was about to get a chocolate milkshake. In short, I could hardly contain my excitement and I believe it was likely the earliest memory I have of pure, unadulterated joy. This piece conjures that very simple, but powerful moment for me. And while on the surface it would seem that this memory has nothing to do with September 11, I’ve realized over time that it has everything to do with my reaction to that event.

Without getting overly dramatic, September 11 and its aftermath irreversibly changed me as a person. It forced me to reconsider my politics, my faith, and eventually, even my personal relationships. For me, it marked the beginning of an essential process that everyone goes through during that period of life between growing up and being a grown up; where you outgrow the skin of your youth and simply need to shed it in order to grow.

Listening to this loop reminds me that, at one time, it was possible for me to find complete joy and satisfaction in something as trivial as a McDonald’s milkshake. While I may never experience something like that joy again, it’s good to be reminded that it’s still possible, and that I’ll likely never find out unless I allow myself to grow and remain open minded. I appreciate the desire to remember this day with solemnity and a heavy heart. But thanks to this particular piece of music, I remember September 11 as a personal moment of rebirth.  

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com. Follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams. 

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