Tuesday, April 14, 2009

No barriers

Dennis and I have had a debate for about 8 years (since he started his formal art education). It involves the question of whether, if anything and everything could be in the circle that defines "what is art," would the circle have any meaning. In other words, doesn't the distinction between what is and isn't art disappear if you can't say that there is something outside the circle? Thus, the conundrum: can there be art without no-art? This weekend that whole argument, that whole perspective dissolved -- just disappeared into thin air.

Two friends and I drove to Houston for Dennis' thesis show at the Blaffer on the University of Houston campus. After the show, he, BethLynn, Stephen and I had a wonderful evening talking and talking and talking about what the gist or meaning of each student's work was, how it had come out of the three years of experience in the program, the types of critique each had received from the group and the faculty, and how effectively the artist conveyed what he or she meant to convey. But all the time the conundrum lurked beneath the surface for me. I had this nagging doubt that art had any meaning anymore if there were no definition, no logically constructed circle defining what is and isn't art (what's in and what's out of the circle). When we got home that night Dennis gave me a book to read, actually, he gave me an essay to read in a book called, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art. The essay, beginning on page 75 (and just amazingly coincidentally, available as a preview of the book in Google Book Search) was "No Title," by Marcia Tucker. And then I saw. And I kept reading.

Buddha Mind documents two years of meetings among a group of curators, art critics, educators, and Buddhist commentators in psychology, literature, and cognitive science, on the subject of the growing presence of Buddhist perspectives in contemporary culture. The essays simply explain that the same perspective I have begun to adopt, as best as I can, to view everyday life, each thing that happens around me, to me, within me, from a perspective of non-judgment, acceptance, no labeling, just seeing what is at this moment -- well, wouldn't you know it, that's the perspective contemporary art adopts. It embodies the artist's expression of that perspective. It takes as a premise that there are no barriers between what is life and what is art. In other words, there is no circle. There is no definition. And I stopped insisting that there had to be one.

My, BethLynn's and Stephen's consternation over Kristin's paintings illustrate the two perspectives: the logical, analytical, language-based perspective that seeks to understand art through labels, through critique, and through comparison and value judgment, and the silent, reflective, meditative perspective that seeks to understand the work through its subtle suggestion of truth, its reflection of an observation about existence, life, being, doing, even non-doing or non-being. Kristin had painted one large purplish canvas on a wall by itself and four moderately sized canvasses that hung in a straight line across another wall in the first gallery we entered at the Blaffer. They caught our attention right away. The four smaller ones were simply different shades of blue, each one. We all reacted the same way: Is this her thesis work? Three years of graduate school and this is what she feels best represents her accomplishment? Wow. Discussion of her work at dinner helped a lot, of course. Dennis explained what she had wanted to convey, how she worked, and even that one of his critiques of her work had been that perhaps she hadn't chosen the right medium to express what she wanted to express. But the bottom line was that there was no way to appreciate her work except through slow, non-judgmental contemplation and *seeing* what was there, what appeared after awhile that you hadn't noticed before, and what it "was" after all, as opposed to what you thought about it after a glance across the room crowded with people. Geez, we could not have been farther from the essence of her work if we had been viewing it from across town or from another state. We just didn't see it as the invitation to contemplation that it was, because it was "not art" to us and we had dismissed it before we even really gave it our attention at all.

Marcia Tucker's, "No Title" connected our dinner conversation to Buddhist contemplation more firmly, and other essays elaborated the connection further. Her paintings are (again) simply (it's always "simply") a reflection of the state of the sky as indication of the state of life in its totality. The work is a way to recognize the transience, the ephemera, the no boundaries, no barriers, no self, in all phenomena. How could I have missed this? It's that I dismissed it so quickly.

It's that the purpose of art has evolved from self-expression (which itself was an evolution from earlier purposes) to expression of the formless, the timeless, the selfless, the Buddha mind: not knowing. You can't really experience her work with labels though. You can talk *about* it. Just like you can read *about* swimming. But reading about it or talking about it is not experiencing it. Reading about swimming is not swimming. And talking about Kristin's art is not Kristin's art or experiencing Kristin's art.

Marcia Tucker noted that we don't spend enough time actually looking at artworks. We want them to grab us and tell us what they are about. We want the label beside the piece to explain it. We don't want to slow down enough to see "through" the lens of the work, rather than just see the work as a physical manifestation. But art is a window, a perspective, a way of seeing. Artworks are not an end in themselves. How could I have missed that?

I missed it because I was seeing from my (left-brain) analytical, logical, definitional, labelled and labeling perspective, and it just doesn't "get" contemporary art (like it didn't get compassion and oneness and peace and non-judging). Until recently I didn't even know that I had another perspective from which to view this world, and the expressive works in it. Not that another perspective exists "out there" somewhere, but that I *have* another perspective, residing in my own brain, and always have had. I just needed to access it. And I have. Actually, just having been convinced that it's there opened the door. It is very hard to see what we don't know exists. But if we know it exists, it's easier to relax enough to see it, or through it, in this case. So, I see Kristin's art now, even though I am on a plane flying at 500 miles/hour from Dallas to Tucson. I see it vividly and can't stop seeing it. But I don't think about it so much. I don't label it. I just "see" it and know what it says to me about the timeless, formless and impermanent.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

March -- incredible month

What a windy, sunny, rainy, warm, cold, but always fabulously beautiful month March was this year, so filled with insights! I hit my stride in March, taking full advantage of this year off. I dropped entirely the pursuit of anything other than knowing myself better. And I completely, totally, and thoroughly slowed down. That has been the real key to enabling a state of openness to seeing things differently, and seeing beyond the perspective that I have adopted over 57 years of life. Reading, discussion with others, and reflection play an important role, but it's catalytic. It is on the surface, relative to other efforts I have made this month. Remembering, writing down and analyzing my dreams, formal meditation, recognizing the fleeting nature of resistance to doing certain things, paying attention to the physiological aspects of emotional states I experience, and just being present more of the time, moment-to-moment -- these are more deeply satisfying and mark a real departure from intellectual understanding, towards knowing and accepting reality.

I discovered a tool and learned how to use it: the utility of recognizing and respecting my right-brain perspectives on reality, while maintaining respect for the importance of left-brain functioning. In a healthy mind, neither can be dismissed or even discounted. I put this tool to work and experienced amazing insights.

For example, this month I remembered how fearful I was as a child of doing anything wrong because I could see pretty plainly how people related to my brother, who in fact did do, just about everything, wrong. But more importantly, I connected a subtle tendency to hold my breath once I begin to do just about anything, to this little fear of failing to do it right. This leads inevitably (and quickly) to panic, which makes me want to stop doing whatever it is I am doing. It only registers consciously as resistance to the task. It takes a lot of energy to keep up the task (fighting the panic) while not breathing. Until recently, I was unaware of what was going on, registering only the resistance. Now, seeing the process clearly, I see that it's much simpler just to breathe. The panic goes away, the urge to abandon the task goes away, and all that's left is the task and me, and no resistance whatsoever. I get a lot more done with a lot less energy.

Love is contingent. Think about that. That is simple and irrefutable in our world. We see evidence of the truth of this everywhere. But it's also irrefutable that we are the potential for unconditional love. Just as we are the potential for compassion and forgiveness. Can fear keep us from participating in the flow of unconditional love? Fear of losing it? Wow.

Which brings me to attachment. Grasping hurts. Trying to hold on to something, anything, attaching to an outcome or result, believing that we are what we do -- all of these are a source of great pain for us. So, whenever I feel pain now, I look for the source of it in attachment, and gently let that go, if I can. You have to start small here. I'm not trying this with my mother's care, except in small ways. I haven't gotten to the biggest attachments (to life going on forever in perfect health), but it's very clear to me that the same exercise that applies to the little attachments applies to the big ones too.

Anger, frustration, anxiety all get the same gentle observation. When I experience them, I look for the source in an attachment of some kind, either to things being a certain way, or to things not being a certain way (attachment or aversion).

Basically, every little thing that happens, every feeling I experience, all day long, offers an opportunity to explore the truth of the assertions I've been exploring in others' writings, that the life we lead, the normal life, is not the best way to find peace, satisfaction, fulfillment, love, or to know the truth.

But, I began to branch out a bit from the fundamental left-brain, right-brain distinction that Dr. Taylor describes to learn more about brain anatomy and functioning, and the connection between what we think, how we feel and the parts of our brain that function when we do. I'm reading or have just read "How We Decide," by Jonah Lehrer (reporting on the relative value of using different approaches to knowing and deciding, in different situations), "Predictably Irrational," by Dan Ariely (a behavioral economist who studies how emotions, and not logic, affect our choices much of the time), "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," by Sharon Begley (about a meeting of scientists, philosophers and the Dalai Lama in India in 2004, in which the scientists explained their latest research findings regarding how what we do, including thinking, changes the brain), and "Evolve Your Brain," by Joe Dispenza (another of the plasticity books, this one nearly a textbook on the brain -- maybe a bit more than I bargained for). Connecting all this up with Buddhism (or spirituality more generally) is "A New Earth," by Eckhart Tolle. This is really a fairly plain-English account of what Buddhist writers explain in more esoteric terms, though Tolle is careful to emphasize that the principles he's explaining have their correlates in all the world's "religions." But, to the extent that they are in fact religions, he notes that they have sort of lost the main point and become rigid and self-serving, "egoistic" in his terms. Buddhism in particular does not claim to be a religion, but it too can be seen as having become rigid or at least some sects may have. All of these books are extremely interesting and I can't imagine how I could ever have read them if I hadn't taken some time off. They are just not like anything I've ever explored before.

I am reminded every day, especially since both March and April have given us such fabulous weather this year, how special a gift to oneself some time off can be. Time off, to, among other things, slow down, is absolutely essential to growth and change, at times. But for me it is not sufficient. I also need latitude to explore that which has been, for whatever reason, outside the limits of my life so far. These new worlds (for me, they have included traveling for a year in Mexico, Central America, and South America, sailing for 2 years around the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, and now, exploring aspects of being other than intellect) open new realms of inquiry and new realms of wonder. It's like life is fine, putting one foot in front of the other, doing what everyone else is doing, being a part of normal daily life -- but not always, and certainly not forever.