the awakened ear

While the emphasis of this website and blog is on the visual arts, from time to time offerings of other ways folk attempt to express the direct experience of inter-being are included. (Haiku poets Gabriel Rosenstock and Ron C Moss, for example.) This is the first time I have featured writing about the art of listening with the entire constellation of cells called a body – a somatic listening from silence that erases the perceived separation between the hearer and the heard in the same way that the awakened eye erases the gap between the observer and the observed.

I know of no one more capable and qualified than Suprabha Seshan when it comes to speaking and writing of these things. Suprabha is an environmental educator and restoration ecologist living and working at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in the Western Ghat mountains of southern India – a community that has been focused on plant conservation and nature education for 40 years. She is an an Ashoka Fellow and a winner of the Whitley Award, the top prize from the UK for nature conservation. I first met her at Brockwood Park School – she is an alumna of the Krishnamurti Schools – and later, on visits to the Sanctuary, had the delight of witnessing her relationship with her jungle environment. She is clearly a woman in her element!

 

Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary

 

This post is a teaser of sorts – a sampling of excerpts from her article The Music of Everything – which was recently published in EarthLines Magazine. I hope you’ll click through to this page to read the whole piece, and see more of Meena Subramaniam‘s wondrous paintings.

 

Elephant, Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary

 

I sing to elephants. It’s what I do. I sing because I like to, and because I believe my elephant neighbours are comfortable in my singing presence. I sing all the time, and it’s when I sing that I know more precisely how I feel. My own speech never does justice to my thoughts and emotions: always a little clumsy and coarse, somehow inadequate, and inexpressive. It’s different when I sing. My utterances are more in tune with my intentions.

I also sing to the langur across the river, and the whistling thrush when he graces this ridge where I live. I sing to treefrogs in the monsoon. I sing to hornbills when they swoop by, matching their cackles and caws, so they swing their heavy-beaked heads to look at me. I sing to hill mynahs all through the winter, my favourite of all musical pleasures. I sing to crows several times a day. As they increase in number in this once crowless place, signifying changes both local and global, the crows here hold lessons in ecology, as well as in musical discovery. As do the macaques, with their so-called commonplace behaviours, and commonplace sounds.

 

Meena Subramaniam - The Wood Life

 

To live for long years in a place works the body, the vocal chords and the mind in a specific and exact way. Epigenetics is real. We are shaped by our environment, by everything and everyone we touch and are touched by, as well as all the stories and messages passing through. The body receives, remembers and transmits, evokes meaning through its very receptivity and eagerness to relate. The jungle tom-tom beats daily, not as the stereotype of a dark man beating a drum to warn other humans of portentous events, but in the million messages, prompts and invitations that pack any column of air or ground. The land, the forest, this community are all abuzz with vibrations: little sonic ripples, and dances of molecules. The art of listening is to be open to these, to become aware and conscious of the effect of them on your supremely conscious body. For life (tissues, cells, organs, bodies and minds) is suggestible. And moreover, it suggests. Not just now and then, but continually, through touch, movement, speech and song, wave and particle. It is a fact that all living beings are tuned in.

It was in going to the wildest places on the land by twilight, and many times in the night, often by moonlight, when my eyes fell quiet, that my ears opened out and shot through a sonic barrier to confound the rest of me.

To experience directly without recourse to authorized systems of knowledge is to be adrift in the open ocean, no anchor, no bearing, no rescue ship in sight. To listen to the night sounds of the forest is a particularly disorienting experience. The ventriloquists are busy, the eyes are dimmed, and the cranium is resonant with its own music; but the main problem is in accessing any thread of meaning. When I fully experience this lack of meaning, when I am aware of my utter lack of comprehension, when I cannot find a single marker or orientation to direct my mind, I can feel the physical impact of every sound, and also of every thought.

Given time, and a settling down of our ideas and preconceptions, we would perhaps have recourse to that infant wisdom we all came into this physical world with, that rippling openness to all sensory stimuli, that vibrant sea of awareness in which every sound causes a unique impression in our minds. When one is rested in this, as little children are, a different depth of discernment is born, and the more direct it is to one’s own experience, the more subtle the discernment is.


Weaver Ant

How to hear an ant:

To hear them one has to be prepared to hear nothing, or what appears to be nothing, silence. One has to get past the tinnitus, past your baseline brain sound, past the wordstream, past the big sounds in the environment, past the littler sounds, then the fainter ones, and further, further and further, and still further, softer, quieter, until you go so far out and so far in, past the sound of the mist, past the sound of the sun, past the silence, past the confusions. Did I actually hear that, did that actually make a sound, did I just make it up, am I hearing what I think I’m hearing? Then you will hear the ant.

The Music of Everything


Painting by Meena Subramaniam – The Wood Life, acrylic on canvas

meenart.in


earthlines magazine


education for wholeness


 

salmon-mind and stream-ing

I would like to offer a warm welcome to the many readers of Phyllis Cole-Dai’s wonderful poetry blog – A Year of Being Here – who followed the links to this website and blog, and who have decided to subscribe. May you find nourishment and inspiration here to accompany you on your way.

This turn of events was uninvited and unexpected. It is deeply appreciated. I offer bows of gratitude to both Phyllis, and Ron C Moss, who made the generous referral.

Recently I posted a piece on another of my sites – wonderingmind studio – which brought interesting feedback from readers whose experience tallied with its theme. I’ve decided to share it here as well, with apologies for the duplication to readers who follow both blogs. It’s a compilation about the adventure into genuine creativity – which always demands a willingness to become hopelessly lost.
I know you know what I mean.


Reflections on creativity, flow, and the not-always-gentle art of unlearning.

 

Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910

 

Invitations – via courses, retreats and workshops – to “learn how to be in creative flow” are as ubiquitous as those promising “breakthrough experiences of awakening”. I’ve been around both ballparks long enough to have become very sceptical of these claims and promises.  Red herrings are strong swimmers and prolific breeders. Especially when their favourite tucker – yummy money – is flowing.

Can creativity be taught?  Can “awakening” ever be an experience?  These questions are intimately related but I’ll focus on the first one, since this blog is primarily about art and creativity.

My experience, both within my own practice and as a teacher of visual language, constantly confirms that genuine creativity can unfold only when there’s an abandonment of everything one has learned about it.

 

I am trying to check my habits of seeing,
to counter them for the sake of greater freshness.
I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.
– John Cage

It seems to me there are two types of “flow”, but only one is truly creative.  One occurs when I’ve slipped into an eddy of old patterns and processes – those that brought me pleasure and profit in the past.  I know where I’m going; it’s easy.  It might even make me feel satisfied that I’ve had a good day in the studio – for a while.  I call this type “phony-flow” for obvious reasons.

Then there’s the other kind of “flow”, the kind that’s hard to write about because you weren’t there when it was underway.  It involves encounters and experiences with the Unknown, and a kind of gracious movement that is closer to stream-ing. When you look at what was created during the movement – whatever your mode of expression might be – what you see astonishes you.  You know without a shadow of doubt that you didn’t do it.  And yet you recognize that this is your most authentic work.

 

I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones.
Rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me,
because they put me in touch with the unknown.
It’s then that I begin to work…
when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty.
– Robert Rauchenberg

 

Creativity, by definition, implies a leap from the known to the unknown.  It is not the same as innovation, which has its feet firmly planted in the familiar.  Nor is it the same as invention, which implies a desired outcome or end product.  It has no pedagogy or curriculum.  There are no maps of the territory.  The only strategy we can employ, if we are earnest enough, is that of finding out what sabotages its natural expression.*

 

Whatever I know how to do, I’ve already done.
Therefore I do what I do not know how to do.

– Eduardo Chillida

~

I am always doing that which I cannot do,
in order that I may learn how to do it.
– Pablo Picasso

So my personal reaction to courses claiming to cultivate skills to access creative flow isn’t an enthusiastic one. I’m just not interested in exploring notions others might have (no matter what their pedigree) of ways to free my inner artist.  If anything is called for on my via creativa it’s the exile of that artist-ego with its accumulation of ideas, certainties, and its insatiable need for recognition.

Using the metaphor of a stream, it’s easy to understand that “flow” only moves downstream.  And as everyone knows, the source is always upstream.  Floating along in the flow is fine; it’s recreational and maybe allows a brief escape from stress – witness the huge popularity of doodle-books and colouring-in books.  There’s a place for this, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves that we’re being genuinely creative.

 

Remember, a dead fish can float down a stream,
but it takes a live one to swim upstream.
– W.C. Fields

If you ache for the authenticity, the unknowable and artist-vaporising creativity of the Source, forget about flow.  Abandon the “how-to” red herrings.

Adopt salmon-mind.  Make your way upstream.  You know the way – it’s imprinted in your cells.

Leap those rapids. Outwit those hungry bears.

 

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful,
the more narrowly I limit my field of action
and the more I surround myself with obstacles.
– Richard Diebenkorn

How do we fuel our quest upstream? By dismissing irrelevancies (as Buckminster Fuller advised); by finding the questions that have no rational answers yet haunt us nevertheless. By spending a great deal of time in solitude and silence watching the mind’s desperate and insistent groping for certainty, affirmation, context. By the way of unlearning; by abandonment of our pet theories and preferences. Our courage in this quest will inevitably deliver us to the sweet dark pool of ultimate unknowing, and, worn out from the challenges to our sureties, we’ll drop our eggs.  We’ll sink.  The Source will reclaim its own.

Our eggs will hatch, some of them, and be swept downstream to spread the news: it is possible!  It is possible to return to the Source and leave the old life there.  It is possible to dissolve into the stream as it makes its way to the Ocean; to rest in and as its stream-ing, as its authentic expression, without any concern for or notion of, whether we’re “being creative” or not. (If that question is still arising… keep swimming upstream.)

Then we can speak of “flow” – because we’ve experienced that it’s exactly what we are. The one who thought they could (or couldn’t) find it, could tap it for artistic purposes, could promote it or become an expert and sell it – that one was the saboteur all along.

Until salmon-mind set it free.

 

I find my paintings by working on them…
…it is through the making of the paintings that I have many discoveries
which are different from ideas.

~

Painting is a long road.
The beauty to me is in the not knowing where one is going.

~

Perhaps we do not need to understand it all.
– Lawrence Carroll

 


* The series of e-books empty canvas – wondering mind was compiled with this mission in mind.
You can download them for free at wonderingmind studio.


Image: Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910


From the bookshelf: Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson


 

Agnes Martin: "I paint with my back to the world."

Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world.
The last word.


 

Hokusai says

 

Hokusai: Hawk on a Ceremonial Stand

 

Hokusai says Look carefully.
He says pay attention, notice.
He says keep looking, stay curious.
He says there is no end to seeing.

He says Look Forward to getting old.
He says keep changing,
you just get more who you really are.
He says get stuck, accept it, repeat yourself
as long as it’s interesting.

He says keep doing what you love.
He says keep praying.
He says every one of us is a child,

every one of us is ancient,
every one of us has a body.
He says every one of us is frightened.
He says every one of us has to find a way to live with fear.

He says everything is alive—
shells, buildings, people, fish, mountains, trees.
Wood is alive.
Water is alive.
Everything has its own life.
Everything lives inside us.
He says live with the world inside you.

He says it doesn’t matter if you draw, or write books.
It doesn’t matter if you saw wood, or catch fish.
It doesn’t matter if you sit at home
and stare at the ants on your verandah or the shadows of the trees
and grasses in your garden.

It matters that you care.
It matters that you feel.
It matters that you notice.
It matters that life lives through you.

Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength
are life living through you.
Peace is life living through you.

He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.

– Roger Keyes

 


The poet Roger Keyes is an American professor of East Asian studies. This poem is apparently his cross-media translation of the art of Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) into poetry.

Sourced from a year of being here – daily mindfulness poetry by wordsmiths of the here & now.

Gratitude!


Image: Katsushika Hokusai, Hawk on a Ceremonial Stand, Ukiyo-e

Source: wikiart


From the bookshelf: Hokusai, by Gian Carlo Calza


on mindfulness, contentedness and a tin mug

 

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

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 also featured on pages in this site:

Robert Spellman at the artisans’ gallery

Marion Milner: knowing with the whole body


Marion Milner: A Life of One's Own

A Life of One’s Own


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David Bohm and Rouault’s clown


the philosophy of presence

 

NGV - Bushido - Way of the Samurai

 

Bushido: Way of the Samurai

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


 

NGV-Samurai-sword

 

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 HerrigelZen 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.

 

Utagawa YOSHITORA: Kumasaka's night attack on Ushiwaka-maru at the Akasaka Post-station in Mino Province

 

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.

Christopher Allen


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