18 August 2021

Old Dogs, New Tricks –– Keep on Learning


Many years ago, I had the good fortune to spend a year as interim pastor for two small town Congregational Churches in eastern South Dakota. It was one of the best times in my life. I had parishioners to visit during the week and share with at Sunday services. But, I was alone in a big parsonage until my brother Tom brought his dog Henry up to keep me company. Henry, sometimes Henny or just Hank for short, was a thirteen year-old, short-haired and short-legged terrier. He was a bright animal with a warm disposition. But, in previous weeks, he had penetrated forbidden territory and been cited by the dogcatcher in our hometown. In lieu of a fine or impoundment, Henry relocated 20 miles up the road and out of trouble.

Henry the Faithful Dog

Henny was a fine friend and did well in the little town. He and I covered lots of miles walking around the town. Henry also got to ride shotgun when we went to visit folks in the countryside.

While pastoring, I related my sermons to the calendar. But at one point, I hatched an independent idea for a sermon, “Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks.” I imagined bringing Henry to the front of the sanctuary - the dog sometimes helped when I had occasion to do church cleanup - during a Children’s Message and demonstrating tricks which Henry had been learning.

Although I did teach Hank some new tricks, I never wrote the sermon. It didn’t fit well in the scheme of things and I wasn’t prepared to put our work to a performance test. I’m sure Henry wouldn’t have minded failing before the crowd, but I might have. Besides, Henry really liked to explore the church when it was empty. No telling what he would have done when it was full on an active Sunday morning.

Regardless, that 13-year-old critter did learn a few tricks - new tricks for him. But, it is by no means an easy task. By persistence, we succeeded. Henry had little experience of humanly taught tricks. My brother just liked having a dog around his house. What did Henry learn? To shake, lay, crawl, roll over and stand up on command. Of course, treats helped his efforts.


Old Henry came to mind while preparing this essay at a time in the writer’s life when strangely a host of new things are appearing, lessons being confronted, and languages being learned. Robert believes we should make the best of life to the last day. “Make hay while the sun shines.”

One way to do so is to continue learning until that last day of this lifetime. Then, we will be more ready for what comes next. We are constantly creating our tomorrows right here and now. Each day in our lives individually and collectively results from how we have lived in the past – in this life or previous ones. 

Still, these are only his beliefs. Like Socrates, Robert says he “knows” nothing. All the same, he has lots of clues that he has been in a body in different climes and times. And that he will be back again and again until … He suspects you will, too.

In the latter years of this lifetime, he has found himself learning all sorts of things. In the last ten years, he may have learned more than in the 60+ years before. Some of those new learnings might be called languages. So, he thought to share some of his “adventures” in learning new languages. It should be noted ahead of time that language is used here in a broad as well as usual sense.

FRENCH: Robert by now features himself relatively proficient in reading and translating the French language after several years of practice. That even though he only took one year of college French decades ago.

Reading French became important for him to learn more about the wonderful works of a man named Anton Mesmer who lived from 1734 to 1815. Mesmer, whose name is the source of the word mesmerize, came upon the idea of the universal fluid or agent which he promoted as an agent of healing. His most public work was done in Paris from 1778 to 1788 before the French Revolution.

Mesmeromania reigned then and he was the talk of the town. He created waves of excitement and titillation, wonder and healing as he shared his animal magnetism with the sick and lame. You can read his story, a whole book at — http://bobsbestbooks.net/Mesmer/MesmerEyes.html

Rediscovering Mesmer and his work encouraged Robert to study French, the language in which most of his writings and those of other mesmerizers were written. But, where to begin? There were remnants in his mind from college French, many similarities to the English language, and troves of words with common roots. But, the project required much work and learning.

He started slowly by reading a few relatively simple books in the original French. Then, he progressed to taking on thick ones. The translate.google.com website was a great help early on as he began to translate books in digital format. Within a few months, he was able to translate books with some numbering hundreds of pages while only getting online helps for complicated sentences or unusual words. His favorite read was called Le monde médical parisien au dix-huitème siècle [The Parisian Medical World of the 18th century], by Paul Delaunay, Paris, 1906. It tells the stories of several very unusual physicians of long ago.

Learning French opened up a new/old world to this student.

LATIN: Now, Latin is a whole different territory. A much more complex language rooted to ancient times. Robert had two years of high school Latin which was a great foundation for other languages, science and medicine studies. But, those two years were not much help for reading and translating medical texts from centuries past.

Following on his Mesmer researches, Robert wanted to learn from philosophers and healers who had written about magnetism and the like. Before Mesmer’s time, a large majority of medical and scientific literature was written in Latin and never translated into English. Thus, it became time to learn Latin.

Robert bought and studied through two sets of textbooks. One was the Cambridge Latin Course, the other Wheelock’s Latin. After a time, Virgil’s Aeneid presented itself to be translated – the first half of it, anyway. Then, he went on to Nova Medicina Spirituum [New Medicine of the Spirits], written in 1673 by a German physician named Sebastiani Wirdig. After translating around 250 pages of text and thinking his work mostly done, Robert eventually translated the introductory material and discovered he had only completed the translation of the first of two books.

Nova Medicina Spirituum

The second book is now in process of translation. The translation of first book in the set is far from perfect, but reads comparably to a similar text from 1657 long ago translated from Latin and found online: Sal, Lumen, & Spiritus Mundi Philosophici: Or, The true SALT and SECRET of the Philosophers by CLOVIS NUISEMENT.

Learning Latin is a work in progress. It has also opened up fresh worlds of study and of thought.

GERMAN: Looking back, French was almost a “piece of cake.” But, learning Latin, reading and translating it continues to be a quite challenging project. Then, the German language has been all the harder.

Robert started working with a study book in German, but didn’t get far the first time around: the language seemed so different from English. So, he set German aside to focus on Latin for some time. But, German had to rise again because he wanted to translate Anton Mesmer’s final book called the Mesmerismus, published in 1814 a year before his death. The Mesmerismus is mentioned although slightly by early biographers, yet enough to wet the appetite of a real student.


So, translate.google.com came to the rescue. Robert found its use very limited for Latin; it doesn’t handle Latin well beyond brief phrases. But its translations from German to English are surprisingly good, considering how difficult the language can be.

Taking on the Mesmerismus, Robert let google do a large – very large share of the work. He simply pasted two or three pages of text from the digital version of the book at the translation page after making sure hyphenations and typos were dealt with. Then, he reviewed the quick translation for grammar and readability and understandability. Simple though this process was, it took weeks, a few hours a day to complete a draft translation of the 700+ page book.  

The next step was to read over the translation line by line. Then he dealt with errors and grammatical problems. Along the way, the translation had to make some sense of technical ideas, Mesmer’s unique theories, and differences of centuries and countries.


Let’s move on to some different languages. At the same time, we will turn from writing in third person to first person. Either of them can get old.

PIANO: Growing up in a South Dakota family household, music was largely limited to “playing the radio.” At the same time, I balked at singing after the grade school principal, Harry Taplett, singled me out during a rehearsal for a PTA musical program. He pointed at me and basically said to “be quiet and mouth the words.” Interestingly, decades later I had a similar experience during rehearsal for a production of My Fair Lady. At one point, the musical director look over at the curly-haired guy and suggested “to sing not so loud.”

It took many years for me to turn toward music after that first experience. But eventually I did. In the latter years of my marriage long ago, my wife was purchasing antique furniture and wanted more. Having spent some time trying to make a plastic recorder produce a decent melody, I decided to support her venture by suggesting we get an antique with a keyboard.

So we did. We purchased an old pump organ. Kathy had an antique and I had an instrument to begin the serious although slow learning of music. In a few years, we parted ways and Kathy kept the pump organ and all her antiques. I kept my interest in keyboard music. Thereafter, an old Baldwin electronic organ and three or four electronic keyboards passed through my hands. I presently have a Kawai ES-1 which has given me hours and hours and hours of practice, learning, and even fun. Along the way about 25 years ago, I bought an Ars Nova Practica Musica computer program and began to learn the elements of modern music notation and composition and even playing.

And now in the golden years with more time and interest, I have been spurred to spend much more time at my piano keyboard. While collecting piles of sheet music, I have increased practice to more than an hour every day. I must admit, other things, like writing this article, generally seem to come first.

But, I practice at practicing more each day. Sometimes, I look at my hands going through their paces and am surprised what we have learned to do. The hands seem on occasion to have lives of their own. It is really wonderful.

Then, I also stare at my fingers at work and think, “My goodness, they are almost dancing. Dancing fingerboards bounding across those keys. How grand.”

Now, I say, “I am still practicing.” It is much like “practicing medicine,” as few physicians I ever met really mastered medicine. I met maybe one or two doctors in my medical career who might have gone beyond practicing medicine as most know it to mastering the “art of medicine.”

I am still practicing, still learning, still beginning in many ways. But learning this language has become something of an adventure. My intention even at this point in life is to use what piano talents I can develop to become an “Entertainer.” A worthy goal, I think. I just finished a biography of Louis Armstrong who was assuredly the greatest trumpet player of all times. But above all, he was an entertainer. He laughed, smiled, joked and made people feel light and happy for times. He brought healing into the world - one note and smile at a time.

We need more of that in the world. John Doe and Mary Smith can do the same again as in generations past before radio, television, records and professionals became the only ones performing, sharing and giving. Music and performance can be healing for everyone involved - bringing people together in joy and expression.

Note: The next two languages are far more important ones. At the same time, they are much more subtle and difficult to learn – at least for people like me.

NATURE: It is my opinion – but hardly mine alone – that humans as a race and as individuals have lost touch with Nature and become divorced from it. Goethe, the famed writer-philosopher called “Nature the Garment of God.” Since it seems quite so, Nature bears our respect, attention and care.

Please consider that the whole of the Garment called Nature is not visible. Much like physical science is now telling us that over 90 percent of the Universe is Dark Matter. Thus, by far the greatest portion of life around and in us is quite invisible to us, even to telescopes and microscopes.

The natural world is all around us and even within us, but so much of it is hardly considered at all. If something isn’t tangible, material, we ignore it or just take its effects for granted. With technical advancement and what we call civilization, our appreciation, relationship and cooperation with Nature have diminished, almost disappeared.

Nature is not just the greenery and vegetation around. But, it is much more - including the elements and substance, the beauty and grandeur, the subtle and simple things which give us life and rebuild it when ours is disturbed or damaged. It is also in fact the angels and devas, fairies and spirits which we deny but without which we ourselves would have no existence.

These latter are agents through which the higher forces bring us life, breathe and feed us. For, “Man does not live by bread alone.”

It would behoove us all to learn some of the language of Nature, regardless of age. Easy to say and rather hard to do. First, because almost the whole society lives morning to night and morning again enclosed in artificial worlds. Few of us spend more than minutes a day outside man-made structures and vehicles. I get out every day, but a few hours at most even in summer. Even farmers and ranchers spend much of their “outdoor” time and chores in pickups and tractors, many of which are air conditioned.

Being outdoors and in direct contact with the elements certainly can draw us away from man-made distractions and toward the wonders of Nature. But, we can also find Nature in the living things, beings, and humans in our very own abodes.

I am still working on means to develop a personal curriculum to study the language of Nature. Methinks a good way to do such is in group settings and I fully intend to bring that situation into manifestation in the near future. The endeavor will be to open all the senses – five and then some – to Nature’s language, which goes far beyond words and images.

At the same time, I am reminded of another way to uncover Nature’s language. There comes to mind the experiment and experience which Anton Mesmer [mentioned above] undertook centuries ago:

Forty days has been the common time of quest in the desert, midst the wilderness, on the mountain top. But, Mesmer doubled that and then some. He came back with great reward for his efforts in Nature.

In the midst of his meditations he discovered, “A devouring fire filled my soul; I sought Truth no longer with a tender yearning, but filled with the extremest disquiet. Fields, woods, and the neighboring wilderness alone still retained charms for me. There I felt myself nearer to Nature. In the most violent emotion at times I believed that she wildly drove my heart from her. Wearied by her vain enticement, ‘O, Nature!’ I exclaimed in such paroxysms, ‘what dost thous desire of me?’

“Soon again, to the contrary, I believed that I tenderly embraced her, or filled with the wildest impatience, conjured her to fulfill my wishes. Fortunately, my excitement, amidst the silence of the woods, had no witness but the trees; since in truth I must have appeared greatly to resemble a madman. All other occupations were hateful to me. Every moment which I did not devote to my investigations appeared to me a theft committed upon Truth.”

Mesmer expanded his study of Nature and the Truth in a most extraordinary way. “Perceiving that whenever we have an idea, we translate immediately and without reflections into the language which is most familiar to us, I formed the bizarre plan to free me from this bondage. Such was the growth of my imagination, that I realized this abstract idea. I thought three months without words. Having ended this deep contemplation, I looked with astonishment around me: my senses deceived me no longer as in the past: the objects had taken new forms ...”

Surely, there are many ways to learn the language of Nature. Maybe the reader has an idea regarding such a way to share.

SOUL: The language of Nature seems naturally to bring us to the the language of the Soul. The Garment of God hides and also reveals the essence of existence. But, it takes real Nature study to peel back its layers and begin to learn its language and secrets.

Every human’s goal is ultimately to achieve an intimate, conscious relationship with his/her own God Nature – called the Soul, the Christ within, the Personal Savior, the Buddhic Principle, the Solar Angel, etc. The great teachers and sages of all ages have taught that we can all “go into our closet” and approach the Inner Light. Ask, Seek, Knock.

Meditation is the name for that practice. And it is a practice not just of hours and months and years, but of lifetimes. To understand the language of the Soul requires silencing the outer world as well as our own loud and distracting thoughts and desires.

My own “practice” of meditation has covered decades in this lifetime. Like I used to practice medicine, I now practice meditation. Maybe I am an apprentice by now. I do not wish to scare people away from trying to learn meditation, but it is neither a simple nor quick nor necessarily a comforting project. I presently spend hours practicing meditation every day.

There are all sorts of meditation, teachings about it, and even “languages” of meditation. But, the meditation of which I speak is more than silence, relaxation, visualization, attunement, mindlfulness. It is about going beyond mind to the Soul.

With or without meditation, our Souls draw us into the inner worlds nightly and after each incarnation. Ultimately, meditation leads us to unlimited knowledge, Oneness with the Soul and towards true service of all beings.

There are many, many languages we can learn or work at learning at most any age in life. These six are my recent and present curriculum. May I suggest any and all who read this essay to take on a new language - or retake an old one and give it new life. In later years, most of us have time to burn. So, we just start - at any age - with a few minutes a day on a “language” and gradually allow it to lead our steps into greater knowledge, awareness, and goodness. So may it be.

Comments always welcome at theportableschool at gmail dot com.

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