« If You Depict a Bird, Give It Space to Fly »:
On Mind, Meditation, and Art
Department of Psychology
University of California, Berkeley
« We are led to believe a lie
When we see with and not through the eye. » (William Blake)
« Feeling is a rebound or echo from contact [contact between a sense organ and its object]. It is symbolized by a man with an arrow through his eye. It is a very penetrating experience. » (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche)
What is mind? What is perception? To whom do we give the authority to show us our minds and ourselves? Increasingly Western culture has given that authority to the sciences: psychology, neurophysiology, brain research, evolutionary theory. The portrait that they paint is of a mind inherently separate from the world, a mind which struggles continuously to build mental representations and develop skills so that it can fulfill its originating value, which is to survive and reproduce. Yet humans have a sense that they know themselves and the world in a more direct, real, alive, even meaningful, way than this. Both meditation and the arts tap into this basic intuition – don’t they? Surely, when we are deeply struck (for example, when the terrible climax of a tragedy is known and felt as incomprehensibly, timelessly perfect), we seem to have a glimpse of something else, of something other than survival—in fact, of something other than the way our mind usually functions, or the way we think it functions.
My claim is that it is the special province of the arts to show people themselves in a mirror which reflects their ordinary self image in the light of such deeper and broader understanding. How? The arts are both created and appreciated by the activity of the senses and of the thinking mind. According to some meditation traditions (particularly later Buddhism) activity of the senses and of thoughts are inherently double-faced: they arise from and can point back either to their surface confused habitual mode of operation, which is what humans are conscious of most of the time (and which is reflected in most of the portraits of mind in our psychologies), or to a deeper, more panoramic, and more immediate wisdom way of knowing, feeling, and being. Such an underlying nascent wisdom mode is said to be always available, half glimpsed, by everyone.
Let us explore three aspects of this wisdom mind in relation to the arts: 1) Humans as a directly felt part of the natural world. 2) Humans as beings that are part of humanity. 3) Humans as part of that which is said to be inexpressible but of supreme importance. A series of contemplative exercises are the centerpiece of each section (do as much or as little of each as you like); these are in lieu of a particular art work as focus because the searchlight of the present topic is surely on the art quality of ordinary mind, of ordinary life itself.
I. Humans as a Part of Nature
For both standard psychology and a certain kind of common sense, the perceiving mind is obviously separate from the objects it perceives. Is it? Where is your consciousness; do you feel it to be confined behind your eyes peering out at a separated world? Always?
Meditation in most traditions serves not only to calm and focus the mind, but to begin to integrate the person: to bring body, mind, and action together, to bring the senses and their objects (the seen, heard, thought…) together. There is a basic mode of knowing which knows the knowing self, mind, body, and environment as one panoramic whole. Don’t we all have glimpses of this independent of any formal meditation experience?
Suggested contemplative exercises: a) Gaze out from a height such as a highway vista point or hillside. (Or alternatively stand in a place surrounded by tall buildings or trees, or indoors in a building with a sense of vertical height.) Allow the mind to expand outward in all directions, including behind. Feel the surround and oneself in it. Or b) Pick a time when you are working intensely. As you finish or come to a break, stop! letting the mind expand into the senses and environment. Or c) What has given you an experience of panoramic knowing in the past? Go there.
There are many art works which can strike the senses in such a way as to throw the mind into a momentary sense of panorama. Chinese landscape painting from its inception has specialized in visions of great mountains, rivers, valleys, and vistas among which are blended tiny human houses and figures. (If possible, see « Taoism and the Arts of China » presently at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco; what effect do those landscapes have on the mind?) Architecture and landscape design can be natural modes of conveying such experiences. Narratives too, although typically verbal, have imagined settings. Perhaps because in both verbal and pictorial presentations, the setting, the figures, and the action are all presented in the same imaginative modality (such as brush strokes or the author’s words), the audience can more readily apprehend and participate in the mutual determination of figure and setting than in real life, where our ordinary assumptions and habits hold sway.
The intuition of oneself and other humans as a direct part of nature applies also to the energy level of experience. To know oneself as the movement of chi is perhaps most obviously and directly the province of music and dance. If you engage in either of these forms or in a martial art, the next time you are doing your practice, you might pay special attention to the way in which mind, as well as body, appears to you. Or try the following: deliberately do something that is constraining and renders you seriously impatient. (Trying to do sitting or standing meditation longer than you feel like it might be just the ticket.) Let it build up, then tune into the energy level of that impatience. Where is the energy and where does it go—and where and what is the mind?
The sense of humans and nature as chi energy can also be conveyed pictorially. This may be by means of content: think of mountain landscapes with rushing streams and waterfalls or of winds tearing at trees and human clothing. More likely it is conveyed by design and the quality of brush strokes (think of Van Gogh.). Likewise in narrative it is the quality and style of description that paints things in their energy aspect; think of the writing style of Hemingway: « In the late summer of that year, we’d lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving, and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves. » (A Farewell to Arms, p. 1)
Perhaps it is because humans already have the ability to know themselves directly as an interdependently arising part of the energies of nature that they would ever think to propose a naturalistic science or naturalistic philosophy in the first place—or an account of human origins such as evolution. However, when this intuition is expressed in the form of art, it appears to have the power to awaken a form of knowing of a different quality with different implications than does its scientific expression.
Suggested exercise: try contemplating some scientific theory about humans that you believe—what faculties of mind do you use to do this, and how does it feel? How does this compare with the contemplation of art (such as Chinese landscape painting or Van Gogh)?
For many, the scientific version seems to lead the intellect to the conclusion that we are mere products of nature and, as such, without value or meaning; that is, it tends to cut off the rest of the knowing that goes with this intuition. (The Christianity-versus-evolution debate, which might seem to address related issues, has tended to be framed in terms of doctrine, not the psychology of knowing.) My claim is that when the underlying human knowledge of oneself as part of nature is evoked, it is anything but nihilistic – for example:
« You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
the prairies and the deep trees
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things. »
(Mary Oliver « Wild Geese. »)
II. Humans as a Part of Humanity
Who has not had the experience, « There but for the grace of God go I »? Who has not felt at some point amazed at being confined to just one small life which somehow happens to be one’s own? (As the protagonist of Ethan Canin’s story « Accountant » puts it in the final denouement of that remarkable character portrait: « I suppose I was wondering, although it is strange for me to admit it, why, of all the lives that might have been mine, I have led the one I have just described. ») Who has not been deeply moved, perhaps life changingly, by visual images or narratives of other humans—even fictional ones? We don’t particularly need a contemplative exercise to get in touch with feelings of connectedness to other humans, do we? Just as the manifestation of our selves and our knowing minds are an interdependent part of environments, so they are literally interdependent parts of other living beings. One recent account in psychology speaks of the simultaneous interplay of human interactions, such as those between mother and infant, as intersubjectivity. Buddhism points to the way in which a deep realization of interrelatedness naturally manifests as compassion. As Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thick Nhat Hanh writes:
« Look deeply: I arrive in every second…
I am the frog swimming happily in the
clear water of a pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who,
approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.
I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly
weapons to Uganda….
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion. »
(From « Please Call Me By My True Names » in Being Peace)
But why is it that humans take such delight in identification with representational characters in fictional worlds? Evolutionary psychology offers some practical reasons in terms of training for real world action. The earliest Buddhist psychology of the Abhidharma suggests an additional possibility. In these texts it is argued that the sense of a solid and enduring ego self from whose vantage point we usually experience life (and which is credited with causing all our troubles) is actually built up out of five skandas (heaps), which consist of a dualistic sense of body, feeling, perception, habits, and consciousness. Perception (and the resulting habits and consciousness), from the point of view of the ego mind, always filter experience through personal hopes and fears. But it is further taught, and particularly emphasized in later Buddhism, that that is not necessary, that there is an underlying mode of immediate perception which is without the bias of hope and fear concerning one’s self. Note that this is not a state of indifference (one of the egoistic states of feeling, according to the Abhidharma system) but rather an appreciative mode of knowing one’s experience, whether it be positive or negative experience, as it immediately occurs in its full vividness. The appreciator of the arts and of fictional narrative always knows, at some level, that (s)he is not the character in the art work. Thus (s)he can fully identify with and participate in the vividness of that character’s life and world without the pervasive filter of self interest. By that slight of hand the reader or viewer may perhaps be caught off guard in a glimpse of the potentials of a more direct mode of knowing. (This is actually not complicated: the claim is simply that there is a basic mode of knowing which is direct and appreciative and is accessed whenever one’s ego mind ceases to get in the way.)
Contemplative exercise: Pick a situation of at least minimal tension in which you are interacting with another person or group. Let the mind expand to include oneself and the other(s). Notice that edge of concern about oneself and « how one is doing » in the interaction. Then do the same while reading a (perhaps favorite) narrative about a tense interaction. How do body and mind react in these two situations?
III. Humans as a part of inexpressible, unthinkable openness and « sacredness. »
What can be said about this? It is the gist of it all. (It may sound somber but humor is as good as haiku for flashing openness.) The problem is that, by its very nature, whenever you turn to face into or try to actively pursue this ground of the mind, this « mind of don’t know, » what you see is something else. But the arts can do a great job of getting through to us because they can slip it to us sideways so to speak. This may be done by a number of means:
Contemplation: Recall an experience where time seemed to stand still or where life seemed to be complete in a single moment. It might be a moment of great personal meaningfulness such as a near death experience or a moment of love (Joan Baez sings, « Speaking strictly for me, I could have died right then… »); or it could be in a completely ordinary moment, such as walking down the street—or it might have been a moment of art. Normally such experiences cannot be provoked, but you might try, for a moment, « recollecting in tranquillity » some previous period of personal turmoil.
Tibetan Buddhism calls this other way of knowing time the fourth moment ( Tib. dus bzhi pa). An analogous description of time figures in many experiential reports of Zen kensho. A Course in Miracles brings a similar sense of time into a Christian context. These wisdom traditions tell us that every moment is like this, born afresh with no past from a timeless source.
How then can such experience be conveyed by the intrinsically temporal arts? Perhaps visual mediums inherently have the power to strike the viewer with enough force and vividness to momentarily cut through the ongoing conceptual mind. (Some Buddhist yogic systems portray direct channels linking the eyes with the heart—museum directors take note!) Verbal narratives, which by definition unfold through time, have various devices for collapsing time. One means is the climax (Oedipus gives an earthshaking cry and tears out his eyes). Or the entire plot may be drawn together in a denouement – even good mystery stories do this. Or there may be a moment, perhaps even in one’s recollection of the work, in which the perfection of the form of the entire piece strikes one vividly (as with, perhaps, Silas Marner or the film Rashomon.) Can you think of other literary devices? Music may work with time in ways analogous to narrative. Many pieces of classical music have narrative-like climaxes, but note: years ago a recording was released called Great Moments in Music. It contained the death music from La Boheme, the death music from the Romeo and Juliet ballet, the climax at the end of the Emperor Concerto, and so on. It was ludicrous! Perhaps we need « the whole catastrophe » stretched out in time in order to collapse time – which brings a sense of completeness (in Taoist terms « rectification ») to the world of phenomena.
Contemplation: Think of an experience where an art work made you feel hyper-real – more alive, more yourself. (Curiously it might even have been a work depicting ghostly people in post-modern existential crises with feelings of unreality.) Shouldn’t indulgence in the arts have the opposite effect? What is going on here?
Buddhist mindfulness practice emphases being present. One cannot feel real if one is lost in memory, wishes, plans, autobiography… (even if one amps up the stimulation, which is our culture’s usual strategy). Knowing in the fourth moment is said to be direct and unfiltered. It bypasses one’s personal egoistic story. Artists themselves talk about seeing nature and people directly in a way which is vivid, ungraspable, even « authentic. » To be sure, art can lull one into mindless somnolence, but it can also capture and hold the attention, making the viewer or reader a true witness. And that witness, knowing (s)he is not literally in the world of the artwork, may even be lured into bypassing the personal ego story and joining directly into the felt reality portrayed through the artist’s vision, whatever that may be.
What could give humans an idea such as freedom? After all, psychology and cognitive science seek determinate accounts of the mind. According to later Buddhism, each moment is inherently timeless, open (« empty »), and free (« self liberated »). Both meditation and transmission from dharma teachers are designed to point this out.
Ah, but the arts do too; humor is one of the most immediate ways. Laughter releases! Think of times that it did it for you. Hearing about people who have everything but still feel miserable also seems to release (as in our fascination with tales of tortured movie stars and the life of the Buddha alike). Actually, shock itself releases. In real life, we may be too busy coping with the implications of the shocker for our survival to notice the open instant, but think of the effect of the juxtaposition of images in a haiku, or, for that matter, those beloved scenes in classic horror movies where the audience screams.
Contemplative exercise: Try to catch the sense of what is happening when something strikes you as really funny. Or can you catch moments of shock, even minimal ones, or remember some? What’s the difference between real ones and those engendered by an art?
D. Inherent value
The values most touted by our institutions are conditional ones: success versus failure, pleasure versus pain, good versus bad. Yet there seems to be some kind of haunting intuition that there is something more than that (or less, if you will). Take for example the concept of unconditional love—how many westerners blame their mothers for not having given it to them (or, now with advances in sexual equality, their fathers too)? How many theological wrangles in Western religions have been generated by the need to reconcile the illusive intuition of an unconditional God with the conceptual demands of conditional anthropomorphic imagery?
All of the meditation traditions explicitly point beyond conditionality. Buddhism is particularly clear in the assertion that this primordial or original mind (or « no mind ») is our fundamental state, what we are right now, not any particular or special experience. (That is one reason why mindfulness, rather than withdrawal from the senses, is a basic practice in Buddhism.) When we realize this wisdom, it is said that the phenomenal world, including the false sense of self and all the other problems and degradations of life, are known as the timeless perfect radiance of that basic ground. Be that as it may, most long term meditators (as well as POWs and the like) do report that they are kept going by some illusive sense of basic, unconditional positiveness.
Contemplative exercise: Maybe the best we can do intentionally is to notice that tinge of resentment at the world for it’s conditionality—at parents, spouses, children, jobs, and the disappointment when meditation or other spiritual practices don’t yield the expected experiences. Where is that intuition that there’s anything else? What sort of knowledge is that?
The problem with primordial unconditionality is that, since it is not a separate thing and not any particular or special experience, it cannot be found or known by any of our usual ways of looking or knowing. It cannot be an object of the senses or of thought since senses and their objects are part of it, and it cannot be the end result of striving for a goal since the goal is already achieved. One traditional image is that it is like looking for a lost horse which you cannot find because you are already riding it.
Herein lies the effectiveness of the arts. Riding the lost horse is just the activities of life itself in all its various manifestations. That is what the arts present. In daily life even as one strains towards values projected outward, the arts can portray that very life in a way that subtly proclaims that to be alive and mortal and have experience and, yes, suffer, is already very much to the point—from Shakespeare’s King Lear bellowing to the « oak-cleaving thunderbolts » to Buson’s (translated by Robert Haas):
Sparrow singing –
its tiny mouth
1. Feel empowered and proud! Meditation and the arts have no less than awake mind and essential humanity itself to give to people, to society, and, yes, to our cognitive sciences. (Generally the humanities are wont to genuflect before the sciences. Not here. Don’t ask, tell!)
2. The connection between Buddhism and the arts goes deeper than an « ism. » We’re talking about the ground of all art; art explicitly influenced by Buddhism is only a subsection of that.
3. Meditative art doesn’t have to be any particular style of art. Sophocles is as good as John Cage. Art that focuses on consciousness, or that fragments images, or that creates environmental installations can be perfectly good and potent art, but these styles are the product of our particular cultural concerns and need not be taken as the sine qua non of Buddhist insight.
4. Of course the arts can put us to sleep as well as wake us up. What kind does that? Think about your least favorite form of art. (I have a particular vendetta against the style of fast cutting used in TV, which I feel violates the natural awake qualities of the eyes.) Discernment is needed here. How do we get it?
5. Creation is an essential part of the manifestation of mind and of art. How can art be presented to people in formats in which they are more actively creating?
6. Art at its best presents a recipe for awake daily life. Awesome! How can we tap into that?
Note on the author: Eleanor Rosch is a professor in the Psychology Department and the Cognitive Science Program at the University of California, Berkeley. She is known for her psychological research in concepts and categories and for more recent work on implications of the Eastern meditation traditions. Books include Cognition and Categorization (with B.B. Lloyd) and The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (with F. Varela & E. Thompson).