Two monks sat meditating in the woods. Suddenly one called out to the other with a laugh, “They call that a tree!”
Since first reading Emerson’s essay on Transcendentalism in high school, I have been interested in Eastern philosophy and meditation. Back then I thought the object of meditation was to make my body float, literally. For several nights I sat in my darkened room surrounded by the artifacts and conditions of my teenage delirium and attempted to levitate – but I could not get off the ground! Gradually I lost interest. I don’t recall why I even thought it was a good idea to begin with. Perhaps it had something to do with my 15-year old boredom, or more likely, it just sounded like an excellent magic trick.
Over the years, my experiences with Eastern thought and meditation have evolved. I’ve practiced Taoist meditation with the goal of developing longevity and health, and Buddhist meditation with the goal of developing compassion. From time to time I meet artists who express interest in using meditation for the sovereign development of their own creative minds. Foyan, a twelfth-century Buddhist Chinese Zen master, was known to exhort his young students with an enticing paradox: “When you can see without seeing, objects and cognition merge, substance and function are one.” Could it be that seeing without seeing is the Zen equivalent of X-ray vision?
Back in the pre-modernist days, Western intellectual categories existed to keep art separate from non-art. The art object itself was defined as an artifact made by the hand of the artist. It was thought to be as distinct and disconnected from the artist and viewer as a bicycle is from an elephant. Gradually, over the course of the 20th century, the web of relations between artist, artwork and observer became more evident. Allan Kaprow famously declared that he wanted to blur the boundary between art and life. John Cage, who was a student of the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, said he was interested in observing that there actually is no barrier between art and life.
Today it’s safe to assume many artists have meditated or studied some Eastern philosophy. However, the discourse between Buddhism/Taoism, and contemporary art practice seems somewhat underground even though, or perhaps because, it has been fifty years since John Cage and Allan Kaprow first opened their minds to Zen as a way of structuring their art.
Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob have edited a book of essays, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, which is a fascinating attempt to chart the connections between art, psychology and Buddhist ideas and practices. One of the ideas investigated is what psychologists and cognitive scientists refer to as field dynamic phenomenology. It is being aware of everything seen and felt within the sensorial field without focusing on any particular aspect…of seeing without seeing through the noise of cognition while becoming attentive to the big picture. Zen has a very nice term for this state of awareness – big mind. Athletes refer to it as being in the zone. Artists regularly enter this state of mind when engrossed in their studio work. It is the fruit of the meditative or aesthetic state.
The centipede was happy / Until the toad in jest asked / “Pray which leg goes after which?” / This worked his mind to such a pitch / He lay distracted in a ditch / Considering how to run
In Mark Epstein’s essay, Sip My Ocean, he talks of how James Joyce used the word “beholding” to describe the proper attitude for experiencing art. Through beholding, the observer gains access to and “catches the drift” of an artwork. If you pull the artwork in too closely, Joyce warned, the aesthetic experience becomes pornographical. On the other hand, excessive distance invites a critical attitude that spoils the mood. The optimal experience happens in the neutral gap between these two extremes.
Joyce’s guidelines for experiencing art can be turned around and used to develop the conditions for creative insight. Artists intuitively understand how to do this, though they may not be aware of it. The mind, in a receptive aesthetic state, is something like an empty sky waiting for the lightning strike of a manifesting idea. The more empty the sky, the greater the flashing of insight. All that’s required is patience and clarity of mind.
There is a particular kind of creative personality that seems to always be in the midst of this mental continuum (Tibetan Buddhists call it “spy-consciousness”). Their internal dialog seems to be suspended for long periods of time as they listen in on their environment, waiting for the lightning strike of inspiration. One of the challenges of simultaneously being an artist and being in the world is how to manage this state: how and when to summon it, how to keep it, how to teach it, and how to use it to lead a more integrated life.
Two kindergarteners were eating lunch when the first one put on a pair of X-ray glasses. “What are those for?” asked the second kindergartener. The first replied, “They let you see through all the poop.”