Sip My Ocean: Emptiness as Inspiration

Mark Epstein, M.D.

There are a few men from whom their contemporaries do not withhold admiration, although their greatness rests on attributes and achievements which are completely foreign to the aims and ideals of the multitude….One of these exceptional few calls himself my friend in his letters to me. I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic’….

The views expressed by the friend whom I so honor, and who himself once praised the magic of illusion in a poem, caused me no small difficulty. I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings. » Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

In talking about the meeting points of Buddhism, psychotherapy and contemporary art, I mean this essay to complement the one that Marcia Tucker presented to this group last year, entitled « No Title. » In her presentation, Ms. Tucker showed how the breakdown of the art object as « entity » in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s was mirrored and supported by Buddhist notions of egolessness and interdependence, ideas which were also breaking into Western culture during those years. Because the primary conceptual tenet of Buddhism is the lack of a central essence or substance to the self, Buddhism provided a natural inspiration to—or confirmation for—artists in the process of discovering how exciting art could become when freed from the restraints of materialism. Before post-modern notions of the spuriousness of self or the relativity of the object, it turns out, there was Buddhism. Listen to the Italian writer Roberto Calasso as he speaks of this relationship between the ancient and the modern, between East and West.

What would one day be called ‘the modern’ was, at least as far as its sharpest and most hidden point is concerned, a legacy of the Buddha. Seeing things as so many aggregates and dismantling them. Then dismantling the elements split off from the aggregates, insofar as they too are aggregates. And so on and on in dizzying succession. An arid, ferocious scholasticism. A taste for repetition, as agent provocateur of inanity. Vocation for monotony. Total lack of respect for any prohibition, any authority. Emptying of every substance from within. Only husks left intact. The quiet conviction that all play occurs where phantoms ceaselessly substitute one for another. Allowing the natural algebra of the mind to operate out in the open. Seeing the world as a landscape of interlocking cogs. Observing it from a certain and constant distance. But what distance exactly? No question could be more contentious. Adding this last doubt, then, to a trail of other gnawing uncertainties. (1)

Calasso gets it exactly. Conceptually, Buddhism and modernism are of a piece. Analytically breaking down the edifice of objective reality so that an underlying, sheer ephemerality is revealed. Dematerializing the object, be it the artwork or the self. Pulling the viewer from the safety of his or her observing stance into the mix of interdependent relativity, like the Paul McCarthy piece we once stumbled into where my wife and daughter found themselves suddenly donning a Pinocchio costume while being pulled inextricably into the art work. The observer and that which is observed are both part of an interpenetrating reality, and what we do with our attention determines how we experience that reality.

These are discoveries that have been mirrored in the psychotherapy world over the past thirty years, where the safety of the therapist’s neutral and observing stance has given way to a new theory of « intersubjectivity » or « relationality, » where the interest of the therapist is no longer in the separate self of the patient but in the relational field that exists between therapist and client. Even in the last bastion of selfhood, the world of psychotherapy, the territory of the individual ego has had to give way.

But Buddhism offers something more than an analytical breakdown of objective reality. It has a process, conveyed through meditation, that affirms something essential about the making, and experiencing, of art. For Buddhism, in its rejection of ritual, ceremony, sacrifice, and community obligation; in its renunciation of memory, desire, and the primacy of conceptual organization; drove its practitioners deeper and deeper into themselves, affirming (at the same time as it challenged) their subjectivity and individuality. The questioning of the self as object did not leave Buddhists floating in a boundaryless cosmic ooze. Even as it stripped away identity, Buddhist meditation affirmed a reservoir of self (a selfless reservoir) that is intensely private, and potentially very creative. It is this aspect that I would like to dwell upon.

As Calasso points out, in Buddhism the central attentional strategy, at least at the beginning, is to observe from a certain, constant, and hard to define distance. Tibetan Buddhists describe it as a setting up of a « spy-consciousness » that observes everything as if from a corner of the mind. This is a mental stance, or posture, that underlies all of Buddhism’s vast teachings. From the monastic practices of the Theravadin cultures of Southeast Asia (the closest that we have to the original Buddhism of the Buddha’s time of 500 BC) to the Zen practices of China and Japan (where Buddhism merged with the prevailing Taoist ideologies of harmony with nature) to the more esoteric Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) practices of Tibet (where the Tantric Buddhism of medieval India took refuge from the destruction brought upon it by the invasion of conquering Islamic armies), this stance runs through all of the different forms.

Sometimes called bare, or naked, attention, it is defined as the « clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception. »(2) It is different from our usual modes of perception in that it is detached and receptive, allowing for an exact registering of whatever is happening in the mind and body, carefully separating our mental or emotional reactions from the core events, themselves. Sometimes called mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness, bare attention is the sine qua non of meditation, the distinctive contribution of the Buddha’s approach. It might be described as a kind of radical acceptance of, or tolerance for, all of our experience.

There is a Japanese haiku that expresses this mental posture perfectly. Many of you are undoubtedly already familiar with it. It goes like this:

An old pond
A frog jumps in.

The old pond is your mind, which you are watching in meditation, in a state similar to that which the psychoanalysts have recognized requires a therapeutic split in the ego. Detached and receptive, you observe your own mind without judgements. Quiet or noisy, windswept or still, beautiful or not: An old pond. A frog jumps in. Something happens. A thought or a feeling courses through you. You have a memory of someone hurting your feelings; a disappointment. Or a new idea excites you. Plop. Reverberations. Your mind goes on and on about it. One thing leads to another. Maybe you get involved emotionally. Disappointment is linked to frustration. Anger bubbles up. Muscles stiffen, the breath gets shallow. But you are still watching the pond, allowing the reactions but noticing how distinct they are from the core event, how they alternate between pleasant and unpleasant, how they flow into each other, and how they are simultaneously you and not you. You are both watching and being watched, or is that even correct? Maybe there is only: Plop.

The state of bare attention is not an unfamiliar one to the artist. Many with whom I have worked or spoken recognize something of their studio selves in the descriptions that come from Buddhist teachers. The combination of focused concentration and open, non-discriminating awareness is one that many artists find essential for the creative process. Not that they do not also make judgements and comparisons; think, plan or evaluate; or strategize about how their works fits into various competing ideologies. But there is something in the internal dynamics of the creative process that thrives on this kind of attention. It is a state in which new ideas present themselves, in which old ideas loosen their grip, in which the force of habit can be seen for what it is. Plop.

This is also a state of mind that is not unfamiliar to the psychotherapist. When Freud gave instructions to physicians practicing psychoanalysis, he used to tell them to « suspend…judgment and give impartial attention to everything there is to observe. »(3) Freud suggested an optimal state of mind that was characterized by two fundamental properties: the absence of reason or deliberate attempts to select, concentrate or understand; and even, equal and impartial attention to all that occurs in the field of awareness. This technique, said Freud, « is a very simple one. »

« As we shall see, it rejects the use of any special expedient (even that of taking notes). It consists simply in not directing one’s notice to anything in particular and in maintaining the same « evenly suspended attention » (as I have called it) in the face of all that one hears….It will be seen that the rule of giving equal notice to everything is the necessary counterpart to the demand made on the patient that he should communicate everything that occurs to him without criticism or selection. If the doctor behaves otherwise, he is throwing away most of the advantage which results from the patient’s obeying the ‘fundamental rule of psychoanalysis.’ The rule for the doctor may be expressed: ‘He should withhold all conscious influences from his capacity to attend, and give himself over completely to his ‘unconscious memory’.’ Or to put it purely in terms of technique: ‘He should simply listen, and not bother about whether he is keeping anything in mind.’ « (4)

James Joyce talked about something similar when he described the best way to look at a work of art. He used the word « beholding, » but I think he was describing something similar to what Freud was pointing to when he suggested that we « catch the drift » of someone’s unconscious with our own. If you pull the artwork toward you, the experience becomes pornographic, Joyce said, but if you distance yourself too much, it becomes criticism. The correct approach requires some sort of middle ground, where the viewer surrenders himself to his own unconscious experience of the object.

Another, more contemporary psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, refers to this as an « aesthetic moment. » The aesthetic moment involves a « subjective rapport » in which « the subject feels held in symmetry and solitude by the spirit of the object. » These are « fundamentally wordless occasions, » Bollas insists, « a moment of sudden awe…a suspended moment when self and object feel reciprocally enhancing and mutually informative. » (5) What Bollas implies, but does not formulate explicitly, is that subject and object lose their entitativeness under the spell of such moments. Some might call it a loss of boundaries, but, alternatively, we might see such times as the opening of a window into the fabric of mind that underlies our usual worlds of self and other.
The best recent exponent of bare attention was the composer and artist John Cage, whose music and art essentially became a pure expression of this mental posture. Cage’s descriptions of his process do much to make the links between art, psychology and Buddhism understandable, and I will therefore quote from him at some length:

In 1945 the great Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki came to Columbia to teach and I went for two years to his classes. From Suzuki’s teaching I began to understand that a sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of the things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams. Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.

If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.

The most recent change in my attitude toward sound has been in relation to loud sustained sounds such as car alarms or burglar alarms, which used to annoy me, but which I now accept and even enjoy. I think the transformation came through a statement of Marcel Duchamp who said that sounds which stay in one location and don’t change can produce a sonorous sculpture, a sound sculpture that lasts in time. Isn’t that beautiful?

In talking about the interrelationship of art, psychotherapy and Buddhism, it is clear that all three disciplines thrive when the curious, in-between, state of bare attention is allowed to become dominant. Much of the excitement about Buddhism in both therapeutic and art-making circles has to do with this fact. Both artists and psychoanalysts have had to find their own path into this state—Buddhism knows, and can teach, the way; and has some important things to say about what to do when you get there.

But it is in the world of psychoanalysis, most specifically in the work of the British child analyst D.W. Winnicott, that I have found the most cogent descriptions of what is actually happening in meditation and why it is relevant to cultural, or artistic, expression. Winnicott was a master of the in-between, of transitional space, of formless experience, intermediate areas, and the worlds between that of inner life and relationships with other people. In many different ways, he spoke about « bridges to be kept open between the imagination and everyday existence. » (6) He was interested in playing, creativity, spontaneity, and intimacy, but also in those areas of psychic life that are private, uncommunicable, still, silent, and intensely personal. « The written words of psychoanalysis do not seem to tell us all that we want to know, » he wrote.

What, for instance, are we doing when we are listening to a Beethoven symphony or making a pilgrimage to a picture gallery or reading Troilus and Cressida in bed, or playing tennis? What is a child doing when sitting on the floor playing with toys under the aegis of the mother? What is a group of teenagers doing participating in a pop session? It is not only: what are we doing? The question also needs to be posed: where are we (if anywhere at all)? We have used the concepts of inner and outer, and we want a third concept. Where are we when we are doing what in fact we do a great deal of our time, namely, enjoying ourselves?  » (7)

Winnicott is relevant because he was not afraid to point to this third place—that which is neither inner nor outer—and to link it to play, creativity, and spirituality. While he did not use the language of Buddhism or of meditation, he did describe the space that bare attention evokes. Because he rooted all of his discussions in the experiences of childhood, he made clear something that Buddhism, in its own way, also stresses: The state of bare attention is natural to us. It may have been forgotten, or it may be in hiding—it may even feel threatening for one reason or another—but it is natural to our being. Discovering it always involves a sense of recovery. Art-making, in its own way, also requires touching this space—and part of our veneration of the art-object, or the art-viewing experience, is due to the way it evokes a similar state in the viewer. « Theater takes place all the time, wherever one is, » said John Cage, « and art simply facilitates persuading one that this is the case. » Art is another portal into the space of bare attention.

As Buddhists have dissected their worldly experience, they have, as Roberto Calasso made clear, dismantled the elements of subjective and objective realities into so many aggregates. Like modern physicists, or modern artists, they have taken apart the conventional view of things and forced us to rethink the way things actually are. In so doing, they have come to a clearer and clearer understanding of how imprisoning our notions of inner and outer, of self and object, can be. Because nothing can be found that exists in its own right, because nothing can be seen to have inherent existence or a persisting individual nature, everything is seen to be dependent on everything else, and therefore relative.

This vision of an interpenetrating relativity is related to the one that Winnicott had when describing what happens between mother and infant. As mother and child begin to separate out from one another, what he called a potential space begins to open up between them. The baby’s trust in the mother’s reliability allows that space to be experienced, and filled with « creative playing, with the use of symbols, and with all that eventually adds up to a cultural life. » (8) Trust in the mother allows the baby to experience the potential space, and experiencing it permits play. In much the same way in meditation, trust in bare attention allows the full experience of the mind, which permits the play of the world—John Cage’s theater—to be appreciated.

It is important to understand that in Buddhism one great mistake is warned about time and again. Understanding of emptiness, or sunyata, does not permit reification of nothingness. In opening up access to the third space of intermediate experience, Buddhism asserts that there is something positive, something joyful, something creative, that underlies all experience. While the self, or the object, may not be the concrete, self-sufficient entity that we imagined, the alternative is not nothingness. Emptiness is best compared to the hollow of a pregnant womb; it is derived from the Sanskrit word svi, which means swelling, like the swelling of a seed as it expands. There is a fullness to Buddhist emptiness, a sense of spaciousness that both holds and suffuses the stuff of the world. Not to appreciate this fullness is the great stumbling block of the deconstruction of the self, and one that many people, including some contemporary artists, fall prey to. « Emptiness has been said … to be the relinquishment of views, » said the great Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna, « but …those who hold to the view of emptiness are incurable. » (9) The great challenge of emptiness is the ability to truly appreciate the stuff of this world, qualified, as it is said in the Buddhist teachings, by « mere existence. »

This capacity to know things as they are, qualified by mere existence, is what links the artist, the meditator and the psychotherapist. Each opens up the possibility of bare attention and transitional space—each permits a peek at the play of emptiness that underlies conventional reality. While Buddhist art in Asia became iconic, changing little over the past six or seven hundred years after a thousand years of dynamic evolution, the emergence of a living Buddhism in our culture has generated the potential for another metamorphosis, another turning of the wheel. Rather than repeating the same forms over and over again, today’s artists have the opportunity to reinterpret Buddhist insights in a contemporary context, and to express Buddhist insights in their work. They do not have to be officially « Buddhist » in order to do this, but they may be inspired by Buddhism’s deep appreciation for the way creative expression links emptiness and form.

Buddhism is important to art at this moment because it both speaks to, and serves as an antidote for, the self-conscious nihilism that has become so prominent in our deconstructivist ideologies. While religion has often served as a refuge from society’s materialism, Buddhism offers entry into the mind as a vehicle for re-affirming the positivity of the creative act. Far from the ironic bravado, and barely concealed shock, that informs much of the post-modern response to the breakdown of the art object and the self, Buddhism offers a gentle and penetrating wisdom that accepts the insubstantial nature of this world without denigrating it. Through its doctrine of emptiness, Buddhism affirms the primacy of the potential space in which the creative act occurs. It understands, in a way that our own culture has trouble finding words for, the leap of faith that art-making entails, and it believes in the process. The old pond does not lose its appeal, even if we watch it for a very long time.

Whether she intended it this way or not I do not know, but I was given a vision of this not so long ago when viewing a piece by the artist Pipilotti Rist at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago entitled Sip My Ocean. It is a video, vaguely MTV like, with a haunting, minimalist vocal score, of a churning ocean of changing visual forms. Alone in the viewing room, I was pulled into something of a meditative state by the unfolding work. The ocean, the unconscious, the incommunicado self out of which symbols arise, the potential space of the intermediate area between self and other, were all wordlessly evoked. I felt that the artist was communicating something of the creative play of emptiness that I recognized from my meditation experiences. In the midst of my reflections, I noticed something inexplicable that I have felt in similar moments of meditation: a sweetness, or joy, that seems to come from nowhere.

The taste of mere existence, I thought to myself, and also the flavor of art.

(1) Roberto Calasso, Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India. New York: Vintage Books, 1998, p. 368.
(2) Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1962, p. 30.
(3)Sigmund Freud, « Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old-boy, » (1909). Standard Edition, London: Hogarth Press, 1955, 10: 3-152, p. 23)
(4)Sigmund Freud, « Recommendations to physicians practicing psychoanalysis, » (1912). Standard Edition, London: Hogarth Press, 1955, 12: 109-20, pp. 11-12.
(5) Christopher Bollas, The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of the Unthought Known. New York: Columbia University press, 1987, pp. 16 & 31.
(6) D.W.Winnicott, « Communicating and not communicating leading to a study of certain opposites, » in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York:: International Universities Press, 1965), p. 187.
(7) D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, London & New York: Routledge, 1971/1986, pp. 105-106.
(8) Ibid, p. 109.
(9) Thomas Cleary, Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1986, p. 19.




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