The contemplation of things as they are,
without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture,
is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.
- Francis Bacon, 16-17th century English philosopher
Robert Spellman – Two Cups, acrylic on canvas
On his MoonBlog, painter Robert Spellman speaks of the challenge of contemplating “things as they are”. He points out that Bacon’s words above are a “good description of what meditators sometimes call “non-fabrication”, seeing things without opinion or subjective conceptual overlay”. Yet as all meditators know, this is easier said than done. Spellman observes:
It is one of the maddening things of artistic practice to not know what you are doing. It’s easy enough to come up with a scheme and easy enough to draw conclusions about what has been done, but clarity in the moment of doing is elusive. This, by the way, is why mindfulness practice holds my interest: it turns out to be quite difficult to steady the mind; it’s always on its way elsewhere. I suspect that this flitting quality of the mind is why artistic practice is both useful and surprisingly demanding.
Elsewhere he mentions in more detail how engagement in an art practice is not only useful for taming the monkey-mind, but also that it can lead to a sense of contented completeness:
… artistic practice of the most ordinary sort can lead to a recognition of wholeness, completeness. If you feel complete, you don’t consume so much. If you feel whole it seems natural to be curious about people and things and not so much about your self. This is no small thing if you multiply it by the billions of us on the earth right now. Our needy habits are neither fulfilling nor necessary, and are proving to be catastrophically expensive.
Recently I’ve been revisiting one of my favourite writers – Marion Milner – and I continue to be in awe of her persistent experiments with the processes of her thinking and perceiving. In A Life of One’s Own she sets out to grapple with the question “What do I really want from life?” and discovers that certain ways of attending, of looking, of moving, can bring surprising joy and contentment. Her professional background was in science rather than the arts, although she was a serious painter. To my knowledge she wasn’t a formal meditator, but I think that she and Robert Spellman are riding the same moonbeam when it comes to their diversely gained insights into the workings of perception.
One of her ongoing experiments involved simply sitting with a mundane object – for “it was obvious that I had so often failed to get the most out of whatever I did because my attention was always wandering to something else. So I began to try, and the result was a sense of new possibilities in richness of thought.” She turned her attention to a lump of coal on her hearth:
From having been aware of it simply as something to burn I began to feel its blackness as a quite new sensation, to feel its ‘thingness’ and the thrust of its shape, to feel after its past in forests of giant vegetation, in upheavings of the land passing to eons of stillness, and then the little men tunnelling, the silence and cleanness of forests going to make up London’s noisy filth.
Then I chose a small tin mug. It was an ugly object. Nevertheless I tried to keep my thoughts fixed upon it for fifteen minutes. This time I did not become concerned with its origin but simply let its form imprint itself upon my mind. Slowly I became aware of a quite new knowledge. I seemed to sense what I can only call the ‘physics’ of that mug. Instead of merely seeing its shape and colour I felt what I described to myself as its ‘stresses and strains’, the pressures of its roundness and solidity and the table holding it up. This sense did not come at once and I suppose it might never have come if I had not sat still and waited. But from this few minutes’ exercise on a tin mug I had found a clue which eventually led me to understand what was the significance of many pictures, buildings, statues, which had before been meaningless.
By a simple self-chosen act of keeping my thoughts on one things instead of dozens, I had found a window opening out across a new country of wide horizons and unexplored delights.
She expands this view with a beautiful account of the way her senses were restored from fragmentation to wholeness, bringing deep contentment:
I sat motionless, draining sensation to its depths, wave after wave of delight flowing through every cell in my body. My attention flickered from one delight to the next like a butterfly, effortless, following its pleasure; sometimes it rested on a thought, a verbal comment, but these no longer made a chattering barrier between me and what I saw, they were woven into the texture of my seeing. I no longer strove to be doing something, I was deeply content with what was. At other times my senses had often been in conflict, so that I could either look or listen but not both at once. Now hearing and sight and sense of space were all fused into one whole.
- Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own
Have you ever sat with a mundane object – even something you would normally consider “ugly” – for fifteen minutes, with a mind totally empty of narrative? With no interest in its value, its history or its future? With what some meditators call “beginner’s mind”?
If yes – were you surprised at what revealed itself?
If no – please have a go… you wouldn’t want to miss out on those “wide horizons and unexplored delights” would you?
Robert Spellman and Marion Milner are both featured on this site:
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Given that the editor of this site is indebted for much of her understanding of the dynamics of creativity to a noted physicist – David Bohm – it’s an unbounded delight to welcome a physicist with a passion for photography to the artisans’ gallery.
Andy Ilachinski’s eye ranges over a vast and varied array of phenomena – he tends to leave his photographs untitled, preferring to group them instead into portfolios with titles such as Tao, Micro Worlds, Abstract Glyphs, Mystic Flame, Ice Abstracts, Synesthscapes, and various geographical locations.
On his page, he shares with poetic nuance the way his knowledge and understanding of the micro-universe informs his practice of photography, ultimately delivering him into “deep interconnectedness”.
I am, by training and profession, a physicist, specializing in the modeling of complex adaptive systems (with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics). However, both by temperament and inner muse, I am a photographer, and have been one for far longer than my Ph.D. gives me any right to claim an ownership by physics. Photography became a life-long pursuit for me the instant my parents gave me a Polaroid instamatic camera for my 10th birthday. I have been studying the mysterious relationship between inner experiences and outer realities ever since.
- Andy Ilachinski
Other photographers featured at the artisans’ gallery:
The Ancient Greek word for the literary practice which embeds art into its expression is ekphrasis . It’s derived from the combination of two words: ek, which can mean ‘for the sake of,’ and phradzein, meaning ‘to show, point out, describe.’ The recombined definition then yields ekphrasis, or ‘a process carried out for the sake of description.’ The writer or poet, realising that “A picture is worth a thousand words” (or even a hundred), weaves the artwork, which exists independently within its own visual language, into verbal language – in a sense publishing it afresh. Howard Nemerov‘s poem, Vermeer, is a fine example of an ekphrastic poem.
I don’t know anything about Nemerov’s contemplative inclinations, but this poem suggests to me that he was familiar with the state of unconditioned nondual awareness: how else could he come up with a line like ‘At one for once with sunlight’? Perhaps he was a closet Zen Master. The first line of the poem, ‘Taking what is, and seeing it as it is’ could have come straight from the pages of a Zen manual.
Nemerov’s penetrating mindfulness – and by implication, the painter’s as well – flavours other phrases in the poem: ‘Keeping it simple’, ‘being in love with light’, ‘sunlight falling through/A leaded window’, ‘A woman in blue/ Reading a letter’, ‘a lady weighing gold’, ‘Watching the water in the foreground dream/Reflectively’, ‘taking a view of Delft’…
When reading the words ‘If I could say to you, and make it stick’, I muse whether the poem was conceived as being spoken by a wondering Vermeer to a hearer centuries later. It is centuries later right now, and I am moved to reflect upon Nemerov’s lines, to study the paintings referred to in the poem – ‘A girl in a red hat’, a ‘woman in blue/Reading a letter’, the ‘lady weighing gold’, a ‘view of Delft’, to marvel at the apparent paradoxes of ‘seductive modesty’, of ‘holy mathematic’, of the ‘inexorable domesticated into charm’. And to applaud Nemerov’s aspiration: ‘I think we should be for one moment happy/In the great reckoning of those little rooms/Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light …’
Johannes Vermeer, Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663 – 1664
by Howard Nemerov
Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful! a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care of daily things.
At one for once with sunlight falling through
A leaded window, the holy mathematic
Plays out the cat’s cradle of relation
Endlessly; even the inexorable
Domesticates itself and becomes charm.
If I could say to you, and make it stick,
A girl in a red hat, a woman in blue
Reading a letter, the lady weighing gold . . .
If I could say this to you so you saw,
And knew, and agreed that this was how it was
In a lost city across the sea of years,
I think we should be for one moment happy
In the great reckoning of those little rooms
Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
Or standing invisible on the shore opposed,
Watching the water in the foreground dream
Reflectively, taking a view of Delft
As it was, under a wide and darkening sky.
Johannes Vermeer: Girl with the Red Hat, 1665 – 1666
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Johannes Vermeer: Woman Holding a Balance, 1662 – 1665
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Johannes Vermeer: View of Delft, 1660 – 1661
Mauritshuis, The Hague
Excellent website devoted to all things Vermeer:
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov
(Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1981)
Artisans and artists whose work is an attempt to express the inexpressible will often speak about their practice as a settling into the moment, a relaxing in the now, or even as a dissolving into wild unknowingness – and creating from that far side. Years ago I came upon a way to explore the intimate and fleeting moment; I began painting the exhalation of my breath. I reckoned that the length of one exhalation – as laid down in one simple brushstroke – was a pretty good portrait of a moment in my life, and a measure of my essential ‘beingness’.
But when I read Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being, I had to rethink my moments. Turns out that in the Zen view of time one exhalation of my breath would amount to not one, but hundreds of moments. In a revealing note at the end of the book (Appendix A: Zen Moments) Ozeki fleshes out the Zen view of time. It’s mind-scrambling, like most things Zen:
The Zen nun Jiko Yasutani once told me in a dream that you can’t understand what it means to be alive on this earth until you understand the time being, and in order to understand the time being, she said, you have to understand what a moment is.
In my dream I asked her, What on earth is a moment?
A moment is a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made of 6,400,099,980 moments.
When I looked it up afterward, I discovered that this was the exact number cited by Zen Master Dōgen in his masterwork, the Shōbōgenzō (The treasury of the True Dharma Eye).
Numerals resist the eye, so let me spell it out in words: six billion, four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty. That’s how many moments Zen Master Dōgen posited are in one day, and after she rattled off the number, old Jiko snapped her fingers. Her fingers were crazily bent and twisted with arthritis, so she wasn’t very good at snapping, but somehow she got her point across.
Please try it, she said. Did you snap? Because if you did, that snap equals sixty-five moments.
The granularity of the Zen view of time becomes clear if you do the math*, or you can just take Jiko’s word for it. She leaned forward, adjusting her black-framed glasses on her nose and peering through the thick murky lenses, and then she spoke once more.
If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.
She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.
That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.
And just like that, you die.
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Will I ever be able to look at the paintings of the Western Desert artists the same way again? If one fingersnap equals sixty-five moments, surely one dot would amount to something similar. So, how many moments are portrayed in a work like this one above, by Willy Tjungurrayi? Or the one below, by Lily Kelly Napangardi?
I know this much – one of my exhaled breathstrokes is equal to around seven fingersnaps. That means each complete painting portrays many days’ worth of moments. Was I present at every miracle moment? I doubt it.
But something in me suspects that those Aboriginal artists were, and are, and that they would agree 100% with old Jiko, and Zen Master Dōgen.
want to step so quickly
over a beautiful line on God’s palm
as I move through the earth’s
I do not want to touch any object in this world
without my eyes testifying to the truth
that everything is
Something has happened
to my understanding of existence
that now makes my heart always full of wonder
I do not
want to step so quickly
over this sacred place on God’s body
that is right beneath your
Translation by Daniel Ladinsky
See more at Poetry Chaikhana
* 1 fingersnap = 65 moments and 6,400,099,980 moments = one day, so 6,400,099,980 divided by 65 = 98,463,077 fingersnaps per day.
National Gallery of Victoria to November 4
Sadly I won’t view this exhibition as I live too many hundreds of kilometres away. But I’m prompted to share a post about it here after reading a review by Christopher Allen last weekend, in The Australian newspaper. I always enjoy Allen’s reviews; he fleshes out his essays with asides that I’m often not familiar with. I learn much from him.
Japanese art and artisanship is, however, a familiar and deeply loved topic for me, having had the good fortune to spend time studying in Japan and working with extraordinary artisans there. The young Christopher Allen also spent time in Japan, and while I’m not sure whether his understanding of Zen was formed in those early years, it’s a joy to read his wise summation in his review of this exhibition.
To read the entire review please click through to the page at The Australian
What bows, arrows, swords, calligraphy brushes and teacups have in common … is the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. The word Zen is the Japanese equivalent of the Chinese Chan, in its turn an adaptation of the Sanskrit Dhyana, which means meditation or the meditative state of mind. This variety of Buddhist thought in particular seems to have absorbed much from Taoism, which emphasises stillness, attentiveness and awareness of the life of the natural world, and is the deepest inspiration of classic Chinese painting and calligraphy.
Zen teaches presence above all, inviting us to be in the here and now rather than distracted by memories, anticipations, desires and fears. This state of presence is constantly available to us, yet it is not something that we can want or aspire to, since the very act of desiring separates us from being in the present moment: to look for enlightenment, as a famous Zen saying goes, is like looking for an ox when you are riding on it. We only need to stop wanting and desiring and we will find it.
This philosophy of presence does not require one to live a monastic life; it is rather the spirit one can bring to all aspects of daily life, and for that reason Zen was able to become the spiritual philosophy of the samurai. Its relevance to the art of the bow, for example, was the subject of a book by Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery, originally published in German in 1948. The secret is in the direction of attention and in the elimination of self-consciousness; the archer must forget himself and think only of the target.
The principle is not hard to understand. You obviously cannot meditate if you are thinking “I am meditating”; the meditation starts when self-consciousness stops. Similarly with almost any craft: a potter, a pianist, a painter or a writer has to forget themselves and be entirely in the act. It is the same with swordsmanship, which superseded archery as the quintessential samurai art of war.
The great swordsman, as Zen writers such as DT Suzuki explain, achieves a state of emptiness, of “no-mind”, which alone permits the rapidity of reaction and the accuracy necessary to preserve one’s life and defeat the opponent. The conscious mind is simply too slow: it would get in the way of action.
Many famous samurai stories are about swordsmanship, two of which are illustrated here: in a triptych of ukiyo-e sheets by Kuniyoshi, the 12-year-old Ushiwaka, a prodigy of the art, overcomes the master warrior-monk Benkei at the Gojo Bridge (1839). And once again in a set of three sheets by Utagawa Yoshitora, Night Attack of Kumasaka (1860), we see the young samurai Yoshitsume single-handedly fighting off a band of brutal thugs.
The serenity of his expression and the refinement of his youthful features are contrasted with the grotesque types of the bandits, as he parries an attack from their leader with his fan while beheading one of his henchmen. The attackers are in a blind intoxication of rage; Yoshitsume is in the stillness of no-mind, so that to him each blow is executed with the slow deliberation of a calligraphy master composing the characters of a poem.
Images courtesy of the NGV website.
Top – Upper portion of a suit of Samurai armour.
Middle – Samurai sword
Bottom – Utagawa YOSHITORA
Japanese active 1850s-1880s
Kumasaka’s night attack on Ushiwaka-maru at the
Akasaka Post-station in Mino Province
1860 Edo, Japan
colour woodblock (triptych)
Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery
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andy ilachinski at the artisans' gallery:
- the sudden stillness of deep interconnectedness
how painting can help to save the world, actually
by jordan wolfson
The purpose of art is to take the senses on a journey back to the source of perception, which is pure Awareness.
- Rupert Spira
In order to understand the true meaning of Abstract Art, we have to conceive of ourselves as a reflex (reflection) of reality. This means we have to see ourselves as a mirror in which reality reflects itself.
- Piet Mondrian
The body is a sensing instrument of consciousness. Without the body and the mind, the trees couldn't see themselves. Usually we think that we are looking at a tree, but the tree is looking at itself through us. Without this instrument, the tree doesn't get to see itself. We are the sensing instruments of the Divine.
Art is a form of supremely delicate awareness ... meaning at-oneness, the state of being at one with the object.
- D H Lawrence
The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union; the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity.
- Julia Cameron
I am Not,
but the Universe is my Self.
- Shih T'ou, AD 700 - 790
It is [the] flash of realization of not-two-ness, that is both the center and the endpoint of our human experience.
- Frederick Franck
I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas.
I’m frightened of the old ones.
- John Cage
God created the giraffe, the cat, the elephant ...
He has no real style, he just keeps trying things.
- Pablo Picasso
Slow motion opens the mind.
Smooth motion opens the heart.
Slow smooth motion
the inexplicable delight.
- Paul Reps
Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.
- Renee Magritte
The basic project of art is ... to close the gap between you and everything that is not you.
- Robert Hughes