Stations of the mind: Om to Eureka and beyond

by Bill Benzon

I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, how we regulate our minds. It can be simply things, like listening to some music, taking a walk, taking a few deep breaths, a time-out, maybe we take in a movie, or have some coffee, wine or liquor? perhaps smoke some weed – it’s legal now in America, at least in some states. Maybe one meditates, perhaps every now and then, perhaps daily; perhaps you go on a retreat for a week, a month, two or three. One can see a shrink, get a prescription or two. Read a good novel? Take an evening class at the local community college. For that matter, isn’t education about training the mind?

It’s what we do, one of the things. Regulating the mind. The list could grow and grow.

But I’ve got something more specific in mind. I’m interested in those various moments either when: one’s mind impresses itself on you as a stranger, as something perhaps a little perhaps a lot foreign, or you take a leap to see whether or not your mind will catch you. Welcome to your mind. And welcome to the world.

Herewith I offer a collection of experiences. I’m embarrassed to say that they’re my own. I don’t regard them as particularly special. They’re just the experiences I know about. They span my life from about age four to perhaps thirty.

We all have such liminal experiences, each in our own way.


That’s the earliest more or less distinct memory I’ve got, Burl Ives singing that song. I’m told I played the record over and over, on one occasion driving my visiting Uncle Harry to distraction. As I note in the preface to Beethoven’s Anvil, “It is my mind’s tether to history, my umbilical to the world.“

Since that particular experience happened at the house on Cherry Lane, I would have to have been four years old or so at the time. Though, come to think of it, there is an exceedingly vague impression of the house in Ellsworth, where we’d lived before moving to Cherry Lane in Johnstown, Pa.

Lost in the sand no more

My father built a nice sandbox in the backyard of the Cherry Lane house, large enough so that me and a friend or two could get completely inside it with room to spare. I’d take my little cars, trucks, and men – likely other creatures as well, though I have no specific memories – and create worlds in the sand, moving them along roads, through ravines, up hill and down. I was completely absorbed in the sandbox world.

Then one day I wasn’t. I’d move the figures about in the sand and I knew that it was me moving them about. The magic no longer worked.

How old was I when this happened? Five, six, I don’t remember. I just remember that it happened and I remember it as a single occasion, I’ve even got a vague impression of a green plastic man I’d been playing with. I don’t vouch for the accuracy of any of this – how could I? – but there must have been such an occasion, the first time the magic failed.

Baby Jesus and the cosmic ray gun

We were regaled with stories about the Baby Jesus in Sunday school. That led me to my first philosophical idea. I figured the world was a movie being shown on a giant screen for the entertainment of this Baby Jesus person. There was a problem, though. Movies are flat, but real life is not; it’s thick and rounded. How’s that work, we’re flat for the Baby Jesus but rounded for each other?

Then there’s this toy I had. Let’s call the Cosmic Ray Gun – I forget the real name. It had the shape of a pistol, but it didn’t shoot toy bullets or even make toy noises. Rather, it was a device for projecting short film-loops on the wall. Each time you pulled the trigger it would advance the film one frame. This toy came in a box and the box cover had some lettering which proclaimed the toy’s name, Cosmic Ray Gun, a picture of the toy itself, and a picture of a boy holding a box. The boy’s box had some (somewhat smaller) lettering, Cosmic Ray Gun, a (somewhat smaller) picture of the toy itself, and a (somewhat smaller) picture of a boy holding the box. This regress went as far as the resolution of the image would allow, but I was just clever enough to be able to imagine it going on and on and on without discernible end.

You can see a certain similarity here, no? I’d say I was six or seven when I had these ideas.

Somewhat later, probably when I was 11 or 12, I began wondering what existed before the universe came into being. How could something come from nothing? For some reason that one doesn’t bother me much anymore.


When I was 13 or 14 I read an article in Popular Science of Mechanics Illustrated, one of those magazines, about how you could improve yourself through self-hypnosis. You just hypnotize yourself, give yourself an improving suggestion, and then come out of it, better than you were before.

I figured I’d give it a try. As I recall, which isn’t much, the technique for hypnotizing yourself was simply to lie down and relax relax relax, deeply. So I gave it a try. I never got beyond a floaty feeling while being relaxed.

I gave up after, let’s say, a half dozen tries. No self-improvement.

Romantic poetry

In my senior year at Johns Hopkins I enrolled in a two-semester course on Romantic Literature taught by (the legendary) Earl Wasserman. First we studied Keats. While writing my paper on Keats my mind snapped and I found myself reading the second stanza of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” as though the words were coming from me: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on…” How could this be? I’m me, and there’s the poem in front of me, but it feels like I’m writing the words myself, though I’m writing nothing. The intention originated in me.

That one haunted me, really. I brought it up in discussion section. A graduate student was teaching it, not Wasserman, but she had nothing to say. What could she? [1]

Shelley came after Keats. I started typing my Shelley paper late at night. I was exhausted. Something snapped, again. The paper wrote itself, without effort. This was quite different from my Keats experience, but strange in its own way.

That was the fall of 1968. Come spring we studied Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nothing strange happened to me while writing either of those papers. But Wasserman commented that my Wordsworth paper was “a mature contemplation of the poem” – I forget which poem. I wrote my Coleridge paper on “Kubla Khan”, a poem that’s been with me for the rest of my life.

It seems that my mind was knitting itself together during that year. I wonder if the superintelligent AGI (artificial general intelligence) of the future will have such experiences?

St. Matthew white bliss

A year or two later I joined a rock and roll band, The Saint Matthew Passion. We were a horn band modeled after Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago (aka Chicago Transit Authority, CTA). During our very last gig we opened with our arrangement of “She’s Not There”. We arranged the tune to open with an improvised freak-out by the horns, trumpet (that’s me), trombone, and alto sax. Then the pianist would cue the band to come in on the tune itself. The trombone player couldn’t make it for that last gig.

It was just me at the alto player. We got into it, and I mean into it. For a few seconds the world went blissfully white … while still the music. It was wonderful. Then it ceased. I continued with the arrangement as usual.

THAT set me back, haunting me for several years. “Haunt”, I know, a strange word, but apt. No flashbacks, nor has it ever happened again. But I kept thinking about the experience, couldn’t NOT think about it. That told me that what the mystics talked about – when they’d talk about it at all – was true. Yes, they talked about different things, different traditions, different folks, and that’s OK. I figured that if THAT could spring upon me unaware, then any and all of those things could surely happen to someone who worked for it – in a nonworking way of course. [2]

My first acid trip

Then in January of 1972 I took LSD for the first time. By that time I had, of course, read quite a bit about LSD, and thought a great deal about such things – just look at that little history. I was especially looking forward to the visions common in such experiences, and plastered all over the psychedelic art of the time.

Nada, zilch, not a vision.

Oh, I tripped out alright, for about two weeks.

Instead of the visions I realized that I was a culture hero destined to change the world. I did and said some strange things, like leaving a painting in Dick Macksey’s doorway. I figured I’d quit the academic life – I was working on a master’s degree at the time – and become a full-time musician. I realized that the spirit of Louis Armstrong, who’d died in the fall of 1971, had been reincarnated in me.

I know, it sounds crazy, and it was. Fortunately I wasn’t. I more or less decided to end it after two weeks or so. I signed up for trumpet lessons at the Peabody Conservatory where I studied with Harold Rehrig, who’d played with the Philadelphia Orchestra for much of his career.

And I finished my master’s thesis. Two years prior to the trip I’d set out to write about “Kubla Khan”. Things were going great; then they fell apart. That’s why I had been contemplating getting out of the academic racket and going into music. But once the trumpet lessons got going I decided to get my intellectual act together and finish the thesis. It wasn’t what I’d set out to write, but that was OK.

It turned out to be something new, and unexpected. So off I went to get a Ph.D. in English at the State University of Buffalo, where I hoped I could sort things about in the wake of my work on “Kubla Khan”. Things didn’t quite work out, but they nonetheless went quite well. And that leads us to the final anecdote.

Eureka! – Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129

I went to Buffalo to get a degree in English, which I did. But my real education came around the seminar table chaired by David Hays. He’d been a first generation researcher in machine translation and, when that dried up for him, he founded the Linguistics Department at Buffalo. I’d been introduced to him by a fellow graduate student, Ralph Henry Reese – who, incidentally, was from Johnstown, and only up the road from where I’d lived on Cherry Lane. I spent four years working with him, and others, on computational semantics.

I’d wanted to go after “Kubla Khan”, but that seemed too difficult. So I settled for a Shakespeare sonnet, the famous 129, Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame. That went well, very well. But there was one part that was troubling me: How does the final couplet relate to the first 12 lines? Then it came to me – in the sunny front room of my apartment on Callodine Avenue in Amherst – you just stick it THERE. Just what THAT means is a technical matter that’s not easy to explain. But that explanation is not the point.

What matters is that it worked. It really did. I laughed and giggled and even pranced around a bit, jumping into the air, and having a jolly good time for a minute or two. I mean, the realization was purely intellectual, but its effect went ZAP! deep into the body.

Our culture’s got a story about that kind of thing. I learned it in middle school. You know it, I’m sure.

Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:

The exclamation ‘Eureka!’ is attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes. He reportedly proclaimed “Eureka! Eureka!” after he had stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose, whereupon he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. […] He then realized that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, a previously intractable problem. He is said to have been so eager to share his discovery that he leapt out of his bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse.

I wasn’t bathing, or naked, and I didn’t go running into the streets. I settled for leaping about in my apartment.

Think about it. Who knows whether the Archimedes anecdote is true, but whatever happened, it became wrapped up in a story that’s been told and told and told again. Why? What’s so important about that experience? It’s quite common, perhaps not with the laughter and the leaping about, but certainly the sudden realization.

I went on to finish my doctorate, got an academic job, and then…Well that’s a complicated story, with twists and turns.

What are we to make of this?

Well, of course, I’m still working on it. But the obvious and, it seems to me, rather banal conclusion is simply that the mind is a vast territory, unbounded and ever growing. A Hindu prince sits under a tree filled with the realization that all is suffering. He becomes enlightened, whatever that is, and cultures weave themselves around that. A Greek mathematician steps into the bath, has an idea, and shouts Eureka! Rather different cultures weave themselves around that.

And if we were to place a water-filled tub underneath Buddha’s tree and dip into it in the manner of Archimedes, what then? I suppose the tub would march off like Baba Yaga’s hut and leave us there, wet and naked before the world.


[1] I wrote about this, and some of these other experiences, including my LSD trip, in my autobiographical essay, “Touchstones Strange Encounters • Strange Poems • the beginning of an intellectual life”, which was originally published in Paunch (Vol. 42-43, December 1975) and then revised in online posting, here,

[2] I’ve noted that experience and several other of my musical experiences in a document where I’ve also collected anecdotes from other musicians, Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance, September 4, 2008,