Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Eternal Now

The Ceremonial Letting-Go

Though the idea of endings already suggests a preoccupation with time, the appeal of leaving something in the past behind, of not being haunted by certain memories or behaviors is undeniable. The traditions associated with New Year’s Eve invite us to do this, celebrating the opportunity to release the hold of the past.
It may seem arbitrary to single out a numbered unit of time like this, but a tradition can be useful, giving people a chance to impose their own meanings on a pre-existing cultural pattern. Patterns are essential to learning, repetition reinforcing the new behavior until it functions automatically. Here lies an opportunity to sort through cultural values and make choices about where the cultural idea doesn’t lead to growth. For example, the culture emphasizes easiness and avoidance of difficulty, when it’s challenge that helps us unfold our powers creating greater involvement and concentration. Finding challenges and embracing difficulty would be a much more stimulating style of life. The man that coined the term, “lifestyle”, Alfred Adler, saw the importance of behavioral patterns as expressing the inner atmosphere of the person. Finding problems in our habitual way of living, and creating more fulfilling patterns, is a big part of the cognitive therapy that grew from his work. Pattern making is our nature and we can use it to our benefit.
Often what we want to leave behind is an old pattern, a habit that’s interfering with us. Many of my students compared a habit to gravity exerting a pull in the direction of what’s gone before like a groove in a hillside collects the water flowing down. Rupert Sheldrake called the many expressions of this phenomenon, ”morphological fields”. Energy will flow in the way it’s flowed before in the absence of any conscious effort to change it. When observed in the physics of chaos theory the persistence of a dynamic pattern is called a strange attractor. In the human brain, as actions become automated they shift to the cerebellum, freeing up the circuits necessary for learning in the cerebral cortex. Attacking a habit at the surface can be frustrating since it doesn’t get to the root of long established conditioning. This may be why therapies like the Feldenkrais Method and Bioenergetics, which work with body position, have more success than others. Our habits and memories have attendant body positions. Changing the body position could be a way to invite different mental states. This is very old knowledge. Yoga has always maintained that the way to master the mind is through the body, and the I Ching states, “With the back straight, the ego fades.” Ceremonial dances are also a way of doing bodywork.
How behavioral ritual sets up chemical readiness was demonstrated by a sleep study showing that people who had longer going to bed preparations went to sleep faster than people that got in bed more quickly. Every step of getting ready led to the next automatically with sleep as the final step. I’ve made use of this benefit from creating personal rituals by taking my time setting up what I need for my work each time I go into the studio, sending active messages to prepare my mind for what’s coming.
The creation of a personal symbolic ritual is an act of commitment to an intention. The more thoughtful the personal expression, the better able is the intention to take root by making it concrete in experience. Making use of the symbolic year’s end takes advantage of an existing cultural pattern geared to releasing aspects of the past. Building one’s own content into it uses the power of a long-standing custom to build a dynamic image for a new stage of being.

Friday, December 12, 2008

External Manifestations

Teaching Illusion

When I first began studying the brain, thirty-some years ago, it was primarily with the purpose of seeing what useful information the science of perception had to offer a visual artist. The gestalt psychologists of the mid-twentieth century had developed a body of research that showed how visual elements were decoded and how the underlying assumption of gravity affected our sense of what we were seeing. Since art is processed by the same mechanisms as the real world everything I read was relevant and the research was growing fast. I was hooked. The specifics of the eye/brain pathways were fascinating and complex and led to understanding how the stimulus that hit the retina was processed into what we perceived. By adding visual change that would be processed unconsciously I could create stronger illusions of space and volume. Drawing convincing spatial effects and then contradicting them with equally convincing spatial effects enabled me to suggest to the viewer how wrong what we think is real can be.
Teaching a class in illusionism is an ongoing education in just how individually the same perceptual mechanisms can be applied. The brain maps what we know, but what’s included in the map is entirely individual. To demonstrate the visual component of memory I asked my students how many windows were in the house where they grew up. Because I was such an indoor person as a child, I always counted the windows by walking mentally from room to room inside the house. Jeff, on the other hand was counting by walking around the house. This shows how even while our brains are using the same structuring principle to map our experience, the map is forged from the terrain of our own behavior. The structure of our lived experience becomes the armature for future knowledge. This gives a deep spatial component to how our knowledge is organized in our Mind (what we experience)/ Brain (the physical organ). We learn by firming up new circuits in our brains through re-imagining the new information in relation to other information in our minds. The correspondence of one pattern to another (isomorphism) in entirely different systems underlies our ability to understand new experience and is the basis for analogy and metaphor and our use of overt visual representations like maps and diagrams.
Most of us have had the experience of seeming to disagree or get caught in an argument when both people were really saying the same thing. The disagreement came from a clash in how they used language to express their particular twist on the same pattern. Rather than get caught in opposition, a more interesting conversation would grow from learning about the different ways we experience human life. We learn more from difference, and as we understand the unfamiliar we discover how similar we are at deep levels as beings that move in space.
Whenever we talk about art, we experience resonance with deep patterns of being. The way that each individual experiences those patterns is stirred, and the dynamics within personal memories may be clarified by the image that provoked them. As a class discusses their work, I try to pull out the whole range of ideas the image suggests so we can better understand what’s implicated by different visual relationships. A wide spectrum of associations demonstrates the variety of ways that the same patterns can be experienced. We can see how the range of views fits into a larger picture and be less likely to get caught in the confines of a right/wrong conversation. Looking and talking about art nourishes our understanding of wholes. It develops our sensitivity to significant pattern and our intuition about what matters. As a fringe benefit of training a new generation of illusionists I see the rich variety in individual worldviews that is often suppressed by the wind of prevailing theory. Having more, wide-ranging images of deeper realities may set us free to think what we really think while feeling more connected at the core. It may enable us to take an evolutionary step.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Pulling Together

Giving Thanks

“Gratefulness is not the result of happiness. It is the cause of happiness.”
Brother David Stendl-Rast

Gratitude is part of the shared territory of all religion. It acknowledges our dependence on other people and systems of support we forget in our illusion of independence. I use
“ The Five Prostrations” taught by Thich Nhat Hanh whenever I find myself in a dark cloud of feeling I can’t shake. I offer you my paraphrase of it in the spirit of the holiday.
----In gratitude I bow down to my biological ancestors, (to my parents and grandparents and brother, and aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews and in-laws) who connect me to the chain of human manifestation.
----In gratitude I bow down to my spiritual ancestors, (to Jesus and the Buddha, Ram Dass and Krishnamurti, Lao Tzu and Sri Aurobindo, Mary Baker Eddy, the wonderful Alan Watts and of course Thich Nhat Hanh) who connect me with the best of myself and to the divine whole of which I’m a part.
---In gratitude I bow down to the systems that support me, (to the plants and animals that are my food and the growers, packers, truck drivers, and grocery workers that bring it to me. And all of the systems behind all of my transactions with my surroundings, including the man who is trying to unclog my sink as my turkey cooks.) I understand how they interconnect me with the world in multiple ways and how dependent I am on these systems for the way I live.
---In gratitude I bow down to the people I love. (To Michael and my friends and family, my students and that special category of past students who are now dear friends, to the Youth Ambassadors and the Medicine Wheel Elders, to every person I meet who cares about other people) all of who stimulate my highest vibrational state.
---I gratitude I bow down to the people who’ve made me suffer. (*) I understand they are not as lucky as I am, that they suffer and as a result need to spread suffering.
(*) Fill in your own particulars for all the areas with ()
Lately I’ve begun to spontaneously bow my head with my hands together to thank people whenever they’ve given me help of any kind. It feels good, and I realize how few gestures we have for showing each other respect.
Thank you to the community of people who visit my bog. I appreciate your attention and sensitive comments. My awareness of your presence stimulates my mind and ideas.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Shared Consciousness

Drawing Illusions

By eliminating marks and any other features that express the nature of the materials or artists’ gestural energy, an illusion can create a sense of first-person experience, of seeing the thing itself, for yourself, without the artist in between.
This gives the opportunity to present a visual idea as though within the viewer’s mind, like an insight or a revelation. A visual idea is presented as structure, and if the structure resonates for the viewer it can stimulate a line of thinking that fits the structure but uses the material of personal experience. Because an illusionistic image gives the perceptual system more to process, considerable unconscious involvement occurs. Because more bodily responses are triggered by the illusion of reality, the thought of the body is engaged. The idea, presented as though real, triggers deep level structures that represent a personal version of emotional themes we all share. Carl Jung was pointing to this when he wrote, “Image is psyche.” The patterns of our emotional dramas are best expressed visually. When I was a young teenager I was drawn to the work of the surrealists because they could create convincing illusions that were impossible in what people liked to believe was reality. I had a poster of a painting by Yves Tanguy over my bed, believably solid, specific objects in a dreamlike space. Everything looked real but nothing was recognizable. I probably wasn’t the only adolescent that felt a connection to those kinds of feelings.
The ability to make invisible realities visible is what attracts me now. It may not be possible to reflect on a new thought until we can see it, until we can wrap it around an image in our mind. The many ways we are connected and influenced by invisible patterns and fields of motion suggest new ways of thinking on a fundamental level. Creating images that give them visible presence gives people a way to structure those kinds of ideas.
Seeing our illusion of being a separate consciousness could grow from this. Our physical being interacts with other physical objects and as part of this filtering we assume we are separate with spaces in between us and an independent mind. David Bohm, Erwin Schrödinger and other quantum physicists suggest there is just one mind experiencing physicality through multiple windows. Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Because the umbilical cord was cut when we were born we have the illusion we are autonomous.” His lecture on interbeing points out how interdependent we are, how many things that we think of as not us are essential to our being. He reminds us that the wave is always part of the water.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Expectational Hazard

The Idealized Self-Image

The most insidious illusions are the ones that keep us in the prison of their parameters.
Though at first the concept of an ideal image that would guide us toward being what we most want to be would seem a helpful inner directive, the media world has contaminated the personal construction by the endless repetition of what is deemed culturally desirable. Industries are built on helping people match external images of success. Many individual traits that add color to the spectrum of being are excluded. Whole segments of the population are left out as not rich enough, not young enough, not a particular kind of attractive. Watching my colleagues age with me over thirty years, I look back and think how unformed they looked so long ago, how much more interesting and complex their features have become as they accumulated knowledge and perspective over the years. Yet so many people reject the more complex character that develops with age if they succumb to the idealization of youth. They look at years past as lost instead of as a richness of amassed experience.
Emotions that are a natural part of being human are rejected as unworthy if they don’t fit the ideal to always be happy. We feel a sense of shame and failure when we can’t live up to it. There was a time when melancholy was considered a sign of depth and not necessarily unattractive. Rather than a failure to be happy it was a sign of a healthy reflection on life’s difficulties, of thoughtfulness, and wrestling with questions like the meaning of life and the circumstances beneath our suffering. Such thoughts build new mental circuits to handle them and connect them to other like experiences, developing wisdom to grapple with the troubles yet to come. Keats referred to the “vale of tears that schools an intelligence and makes of it a soul”. Hardships, disappointments and mistakes are valued as lessons that expand our humanity.
When an unyielding and idealized self-image takes hold it interferes with our ability to be honest with ourselves. We force ourselves to pretend, and the mold we create restricts our future growth. When we can’t pretend to be happy anymore we isolate ourselves lest anyone witness our failure. Yet some of the best conversations emerge from difficult times and the sharing strengthens the relationship. There’s more to learn from sadness. When Joyce Carol Oates was asked why she didn’t write any happy books, she answered, ”People don’t need help with happiness.” So much of my own work grew from painful confusions that needed to be externalized so they could be seen and understood.
Our ego is an inner image of who we think we are. It’s pressured to adopt external measurement and if we stray too far from the norm, there’s a diagnosis waiting. Letting go of what we want to believe about ourselves is emancipation from the prison of an ideal not necessarily of our own making. To watch and learn from the feelings flowing through us as we adjust to the world is to experience the true scope of being. Our wounds are pathways to our deepest places, home to our ability to empathize. Though sorrow is never pleasant, refusing to allow it makes us more intolerant of others’ suffering. The ego ideal is a construction, not a real thing that needs protection. The development of virtues like kindness and sensitivity to others depends on awareness of our true feelings and attention to the others in our midst. It depends on extending our focus outward and learning from where we are at any given moment, rather than getting lost in our head comparing our lives to illusory ideals.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Shifting Illusions

“Reality is a construction in which we actively participate.”
Nobel Laureate, Ilya Prigogine
Our personal construction of reality is a working fiction that enables us to function in the world, but to think of it as anything other than a useful illusion is to trap ourselves in a box limited by our own life experience. Yet accepting it as an illusion is threatening to a stance that needs to be right, that needs to believe and cling to a particular way of thinking. William Blake wrote, “The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” The need to defend a personal model of reality uses mental resources to twist and obscure what doesn’t fit our habitual way of seeing. To willingly sink into a cognitive rut, reflects the need for security, but doesn’t leave much room for growth.
Our cognitive powers would be better spent actually learning the valuable information offered by different life experience. On a day-to-day level, we can build our inner image of how the world works and unconsciously accept that it’s an evolving working model that we continue to revise as we get more information. Michael Hutchison, in his book MegaBrain, wrote, “The ability to create and manipulate internal imagery, called “visualization’, is one of the most powerful learning techniques at our disposal, increasing our ability to solve problems by ‘seeing’ them in a new way.” To be aware of how we think and imagine the world, and accept our constructions as useful fictions, without attachment, we step out of the box created by our previous theories. When we get too attached to our theories, fixed images we create about how things are, they can eclipse in-front-of-our-face-reality. We argue for the world to match our expectations and restrict our ability to learn from it. What doesn’t match makes us anxious because we’ve been conditioned to see in terms of right and wrong, and being wrong threatens our faith in ourselves. Real knowledge is too complex and contextual to get bogged down in codified ideas of truth. Discarding the compulsion to be right is liberating. We shift from holding an opinion to entertaining a view. We seek out what’s different in order to enlarge our view.
The illusion that anything is right or wrong completely when a profusion of ideas could offer choices according to what’s best for the situation is a shift that will allow for more comprehensive thought. The more points of view we take into account the more deeply we understand a situation.
The fallibility of our mind creates the impetus to stretch it. We watch a feat of magic that shows us we were wrong, that we misperceived, that we don’t know how it was done, and since it’s meant as entertainment, we enjoy it. Our mind rewards us for recognizing that we can be wrong. Illusion is most useful when we see it for what it is, the process of the mind making sense of the world, shifting and adjusting as needed. The treachery of illusion is not realizing the illusion is there, seeing it as the only truth, which leads to myriad insensitivities, from self-righteousness to war. Illusion is a deal we make with ourselves regarding how what we know is organized. Accepting it as our personal creation is both humbling and exhilarating, leaving behind the externally imposed values that propped up the fixed idea interfering with growth.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Art for Everyone

The rise of community arts programs is providing tools for self-expression to many people with little to no art in their lives. It is a growing movement to reunite people with art and experience its benefits. People committed to bringing art to the larger public convey its importance in a wide range of imaginative ways, through photography and video, painting and murals, gardens and sculpture and beyond. Part of this effort should include helping people see the personal benefit to be gained from looking at art. In the past, the general population got their primary exposure to art from the architecture, sculpture and painting of their religion. Now it’s important to help people see that the particular art they choose to look at shows something about themselves, offers a window into their own psyches. People are naturally drawn to images that resonate with their own feelings. Noting those choices and talking about what thoughts they stir fosters emotional awareness, and builds intelligence in the process. Articulating the impressions stimulated by a painting strengthens the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain and increases the communication between intuition and reason. Even with young children, talking about art offers a way to use language that’s open, and not bogged down with right and wrong answers. Modern neuroscience has shown that far from interfering with rational thought, our feelings are what lead our thought, directing each person’s attention to what has significance for them. Feelings are the flag of personal importance and nothing educates our knowledge of feeling better than art. The philosopher Susanne Langer said that ”Art is the creation of symbols for human feeling.” Looking at Rembrandt or Egon Schiele, or Jenny Saville, or Hughie Lee-Smith can take people deeper into themselves. The insight of the artist is visible, training the insight of the viewer. The skills of the artist can command attention and admiration and have the ability to express human depth more eloquently than the untrained hand. Exposure to the free resource available in museums, galleries and books offers a wealth of art for emotional enrichment. Joseph Campbell said, “The eyes are the scouts of the heart”. Vision is always scanning, led by what we need to see.
The personal relationship with the art that speaks to you strengthens the unique individual mind by building self-awareness regarding emotional themes that guide thinking. Images organize information in a meaningful way. If it evokes feeling or pleasure in the beauty of its structure it’s more memorable. Looking at great art extends the ability to think in images, so crucial to making sense of things. What we’ve seen before increases what we’re able to see. As the neurophilosopher, Daniel Dennett wrote, “Vision depends on expectations.” Great art creates inner models for a more nuanced view of emotion than the ubiquitous atmosphere of superficial images on TV. Those images push a standardized way of being and seeing. Art expresses the depth.
The movement to bring art back to the community is essential to healing a public psyche torn apart by the violent and fear-inducing messages in the media. People feel separate from each other and confused about where to find our common humanity. This is what art gives. Community Arts offers a way to reunite all people with what validates and clarifies their inner lives.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Restricting Vision

Looking for Justice

Not too long ago, I heard a report on NPR about overcrowding in San Quentin Penitentiary describing the conditions of prisoners packed into a gymnasium because the cells were full. I was horrified by the barbarism of the scene, human beings treated like animals, turning them into animals. Most of them had never hurt anybody, had minor parole violations, mandatory drug sentences, were poor and unlucky. I wanted the Supreme Court to step in immediately, declare it unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment, and let them all out.
People don’t think of justice as a visual concept, yet justice is all about proportion. The metaphors of fairness, like “letting the punishment fit the crime” or “weighing the evidence” depend on our perception of proportionality. The weight (degree of seriousness), on each side of the scales should match. Images like the scales of justice underscore the centrality of the metaphor of balance. Balance is the goal in all systems, biological to ecological, an essential principle that guides movement. It is something we can see. What we see as cruel and unusual punishment depends on our perception of excess, of one side of the scales too heavy to match the other. A huge source of injustice is due to treating the law as more important than the person involved, treating all disobedience as equal. Jane Addams called this the “unpardonable sin”, to ignore the individual human context in favor of an abstract principle. Rather than enlarging our picture to arrive at a wiser judgment, massive injustice is rationalized as setting examples of what happens if you are found guilty of any disobedience. People are given jail time for lying to the court when the offence itself wouldn’t have required such harsh treatment. Once protectors of the people, the police become enforcers of the law.
The more we spell out the law the more the injustice grows. “Three strikes you’re out” ignores the particular human being in favor of the elevated slogan. The ancient Chinese book, I Ching, says that laws should not be codified because once they’re written down there will always be people who will find a way to get around them. Another passage in the I Ching emphasized that prisons should be temporary, never treated like places to live indefinitely. Their view of justice was based on the innate sense of proportion and the belief that people could understand what was right without having it spelled out in advance.
There are many areas of imbalance in our society that can be seen as unjust. The fact that some feel something is wrong in their gut is often slathered over by justifications that eclipse the larger picture but not that visceral sense of injustice. No verbal rationalization will shift our sense that a CEO making 400X what the lowest worker does is way out of proportion, or that a gym full of prisoners packed like sardines is cruel and unusual punishment.
“What’s wrong with this picture?” is a question that every human being can answer just by looking. Unfortunately, we’ve had to learn to live in a picture that’s unbalanced on many levels, built on a foundation that treats some people as less important than others and ignores our interconnectedness. Psychiatrist, James Hillman, felt that many of the people who came to him for therapy were not sick themselves, but were unable to adapt to a sick society. Intolerable contradictions depend on compartmentalization, from the level of society all the way into individual consciousness. It’s a technique to keep from seeing larger implications. Limiting vision cripples judgment, whereas the growth of the big picture adds to the scope of knowledge and increases the wisdom of our perception.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


Visual Philosophy

“A consciousness that proceeds by sight…is a greater power for knowledge than the consciousness of the thinker.” Sri Aurobindo, A Greater Psychology

When I first used the term “visual philosophy” a student in the class said, “Wait a minute, are you talking about aesthetics?” It was natural to think I was referring to philosophy about art and beauty because we don’t generally think of art and images in their capacity to express ideas, to evoke a philosophical stance through a visual depiction. Beyond simply communicating information, an image shows how to see the information. We equate seeing with understanding.
We are drowning in information and need the wisdom to know how to filter it. Insight sees the significance within the whole. Wisdom depends on perception. The metaphors of seeing attest to our underlying trust in what we ”see with our own eyes.” We “believe what we see”. As we enlarge our picture of reality, our understanding grows.
Observation lies beneath the methods of art and science. As science separates the world into smaller and smaller parts, art should be equally important in pulling the whole back together, to see the forest as well as the trees. Ideas expressed visually can include the multiple variables that we live with in actual experience, the influences from every direction that controlled experiments leave out. Artists enlarge the range of what we are able to see. By sensitizing people to significant pattern, capacity for insight is developed. Understanding how feeling represents the meaning of what we see tunes our intuition and our trust in its guidance. Educating the synthesizing power of imaginal (thinking in images) thinking may allow us to evolve a new level of intelligence. Arguing for the superiority of visual communication, Barbara Stafford writes “Perceptually combined information… avoids the intellectual limitations of linearity.” She believes that in the graphic world of the internet, artists will be more important in explaining reality, understanding the display of knowledge, allowing an immediate apprehension of connections.
Art reveals consciousness. It offers multiple windows on the deepest and broadest aspects of being human. This is a physical improvement in the most evolved parts of our brain. Like any other activity, the parts of the brain that are used are strengthened. More benefit comes from the self-understanding arising from what you choose to see. Perception is not passive. It’s always scanning for what will be useful to us. Joseph Campbell said, ”The eyes are the scouts of the heart.” We are drawn to what resonates with our own inner state, often mirroring it, sometimes compensating for it. Given that neuroscience has shown that feelings precede and direct thought, letting the eye make choices from the world of art could likely take us deeper into understanding our feelings than talking about them.
The mission of visual philosophy is to see more, to become aware of the complex web of relationships that visual intelligence deals with best, and to express meaning visually.
Knowledge of all kinds can be communicated with images. Even in regard to invisible realms and deep level patterns, artists can help us understand consciousness more fully by what they reveal of it.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Advance Warning

Swimming Lessons

One of my greatest pleasures when swimming laps is when there’s no one else in the pool. Every disturbance in the water is due to my own motion. I’m reminded of the ripple tanks we used in physics class to study the properties of waves in electromagnetic fields. In the course of observing the ripples stirred by my breaststroke I noticed that the little waves preceding me were arriving at the wall several feet before I did. Having a direction sets up a current, a pattern of waves that affect the surroundings. It reminded me of a scene in the movie, “Donny Darko” where a swirl of concentrated energy stretched out from the character toward the kitchen, a materialization of his intention, before he went to get a snack.
In his book, “The Sense of Being Stared At”, Rupert Sheldrake suggests there is something detectable about our attention, that people can feel someone looking at them. A larger field of human mind may be affected by a mental direction like a wavelet bumping into another’s mind. A premonition might occur when the disturbance in the field created by an event is sensed before we consciously learn about it. A surprising result in a study by Dean Radin lends support to that view. When detectors were placed on subjects to determine reactions to emotional pictures, the reactions began before the picture flashed on the screen. The subject wasn’t consciously aware of the coming picture, but the sensors picked up a bodily awareness. The image that was to be shown on the screen seemed to be preceded by ripples in an information field. Perhaps there are fields of all kinds that are influencing us without our conscious knowledge. Intentions and purposes may be our mechanisms to put the field in motion and once in motion may align with like fields for greater coherence. Direction organizes surrounding motion. When I float on my back with no direction of my own, everything going on in the pool affects my movement. I’m buffeted about by the surrounding action, can feel the presence of others in the water. Those with a strong direction have more influence than those just bobbing around aimlessly. It’s a powerful image for understanding. A strong purpose in life creates direction in the field that may influence those within reach. When we have no direction of our own we’re more subject to the will of those around us.
This lesson extends to ideas about boundaries. Seeing water as continuous with me, an extension of my motion, reinforces my habitual questions about the boundaries of my being. I’ve heard that in some cultures, the edge of the skin is not considered the edge of the being, which extends beyond the body for a foot or so. I know a few individuals that see auras around people that extend into the space around them. As the brain evolved, each new layer wrapped around the previous older layer, a nested history of our development, with our most evolved functions the outermost. So it’s not that hard to believe that another, less material level wraps around the physical body. As we move in the world, emanations of the bodyfield overlap and intersect. If we have focused intentions and goals we may have more capacity to influence the whole like a strong radio station will overwhelm the weaker signal.
When I arrived at the pool today, the surface was like glass and I hurried to be the first to disturb it. Just as I arrived at the side, ready to jump in, a woman lowered herself in by the ladder and the ripples rushed out from her in perfect concentric circles, mingling with the ripples I created when I jumped in. The field created by the water registered our presence. Our transmissions mingled. We accept these influences more easily because we see them, but we use technology that depends on fields of information we don’t see. Finding ways to understand what we don’t see requires analogous images. Zen teachers often use the image of water for consciousness. To emphasize that the separateness we feel is an illusion, they use the image of a wave in the ocean, that seems to be separate, looking across the surface, but is always still a part of the ocean.
They remind us that we are the water, not the wave, and to consider ourselves a part of a larger continuous consciousness that includes and is influenced by all of us.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Seeing the Problem

When my mother was taken to the shock trauma unit with a fractured skull in early June, she had three CAT scans within 24 hours. Knowing the extent of the bleeding in her brain depended on seeing differences. Comparing each scan to determine any changes was the only way for the doctors to ascertain whether the bleeding had stopped. Across from her curtained cubicle I watched an array of screens where doctors studied x-rays of bones, pointing, discussing, drawing their conclusions based on what they saw in the pictures. Their knowledge of how something should look was consciously compared to the condition in the x-ray. Medicine is a triumph of educated visual knowledge.
Advances in medicine have followed advances in imaging technologies. The more we see the better we understand. We can get cameras just about anywhere. Even without high-tech imaging, what makes a doctor good is the power of perception. The bigger the picture, the more elements included and connected to the whole, the clearer the sense of the problem. This is why I appreciate my doctor, Rong Zhang. When I had a serious food-born infection that put me in the hospital for almost a week, she knew what the problem was as soon as she saw me. She said that even before she examined me she could tell from my body language that she would have to admit me. I had all the tests and scans that the specialists in the hospital required, and they speculated on all kinds of other possibilities based on the numbers, but in the end she turned out to be right. A few years before, I left a previous doctor who’d been too focused on isolated cause and effect. She’d looked up the symptom in a book, followed the line across to the other column and wrote a prescription for the drug listed there. When I got the drug home I read through the pages of information on it and noticed it shouldn’t be taken if another symptom was present that I had described in the consultation. Her focus on the narrow complaint filtered out what didn’t fit her limited view of the condition. Her image was oversimplified, not recognizing the body’s big picture as multiple interacting systems. Diet turned out to be the solution.
In relation to our mental and physical being, the idea of single cause and effect ignores the continuous adjustments of our bodies’ efforts to maintain balance. The biological principle of homeostasis refers to the dynamic adjustment for balance that occurs on a continuum throughout our bodies, from the chemical and cellular levels to the way our feelings shift in the course of a conversation as we adjust to the other person’s body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, as well as the words themselves. Adjustment is a primary action of living things and every perception includes the feeling that accompanies the inner shift for balance. Every symptom represents the body’s adjustment to something else. When something feels off in my body, I borrow an idea from Qi Gong to send positive feelings to the ailing part, focusing loving attention on it with thoughts of gratitude for the hard work that organ or system does keeping my body running smoothly. It fits my image of the body as a team. The mind is the coach, cheering the contributing elements of an interconnected whole which shares a common purpose. The widespread image dominating much of modern medicine is something closer to police action, ferreting out deviant numbers, warring with some defective element, isolating a sick part. The brain is just another part that might betray us arbitrarily, not connected or potentially helpful. The enforcing authority is outside the being.
Three years ago I developed a chronic pain in my side, and it kept getting worse. Directing my attention first was whether something in my habitual actions might be afflicting the muscles of that side. After a day or two of self- observation, I discovered that a position I lapsed into after I’d been painting for a while twisted my torso in a way that clearly could be causing it. When I avoided sitting like that, the pain I’d had for several months went away. If a member of our body-team is calling out for help, the coach and other team members show concern, they don’t eradicate the call with force.
Pain is a message, a call for attention, and often, reflecting on the big picture, the visual mind can see the problem.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Face Knowledge

Watching Wimbleton has offered a wide range of facial expressions to feel inside. That was one of the big attractions when I first started watching tennis. It felt like such a privilege to observe so closely as the camera zoomed in on the face of someone in a pivotal moment. This opportunity to access the attitude toward a significant event felt like it was tuning something powerful inside me. Because we build new circuits to accommodate new experience, I’ve benefited from resonating with the faces of champions. Paul Eckman says we can recognize 10,000 different facial expressions. That’s an incredible spectrum of variation. There are good versions of ferociously determined and bad versions. The best reveal someone at one with their purpose. The expressions I find unpleasant seem dominated by self and something to prove. In a class discussion of beauty one student brought up a television program he’d seen that connected beauty to symmetry. I suggested that symmetry often depends on the purity of emotions beneath it. If there are contradictions or fear beneath the surface, that can twist the features to one side. Feeling more balanced as a person, more focused on a goal without contamination of egotism and the features reflect that inner order.
When we recognize a particular expression it’s because it’s familiar to us. What we notice in the world reflects something we’re trying to understand in ourselves. When I hear people blaming or criticizing someone, I always feel they’re talking about themselves. They know the trait from the inside. It’s not that the label is wrong. But we use what we see in the outside world to illuminate the inner world. What today’s psychologists label “projection” is a human trait that’s been observed by philosophers and writers for thousands of years. Marcus Aurelius said “evil is in that part of us that points to evil.” The I Ching says to look in yourself for the faults you brand in others, and that being a “superior person” depends on the parts of the self one chooses to cultivate. Cultivating your better qualities makes you a better person. Expressions that attract us are leading us to those better qualities. We feel pleasure looking at joy or concentration as we experience the endorphins that are stimulated to encourage us to seek out the positive. What facilitates growth creates pleasure.
My husband has recently gotten into watching Guy Fieri on the Food Network. As he says repeatedly, ”It’s a pleasure to watch him eat.” He has so many version of enjoyment of his food, that it probably adds dimension to our own. We don’t necessarily think about learning from the looks on other’s faces but whether it’s the determination of an athlete or the joy of the beagle that won the big dog show, the range of our own experience is enlarged by witnessing others’ reactions. Facial expressions provide real information about another person’s inner world. When what we see on a face contradicts what a person says about a situation, we tend to believe the face and are thrown into conflict when the other insists on the truth of the verbal statement. Recognizing the importance and persuasiveness of visual knowledge can enhance our ability to understand ourselves and others and stimulate our better selves as we recognize the attitudes that propel us forward.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Watching Tennis for Self-Improvement

My love of watching tennis began in the seventies when I was hunting for a Sunday morning news show. Instead the screen was filled with the face of Bjorn Borg and I was hooked immediately by his look of predatory concentration. Little did I know at the time, that my mirror neurons were firing up brain circuits as though I was making that face myself. I just knew I liked the feeling. My fascination was fueled by the neural action of focus and determination, my own neurons paralleling his. I was feeling the look of winning. Part of the power of visual intelligence is the internal matching of what we see. When mirror neurons were first discovered, the researchers were surprised to see that the same neurons that fired when the monkey performed a certain task also fired just by watching that task performed by someone else. Understanding facial expressions depends on the same mechanisms. We feel them from the inside as though we were making them ourselves. Like the worldwide expert on facial expressions, Paul Eckman, says, “Make the face, feel the emotion.”
And imagine the benefits to the rest of my motor circuits firing as I watch such outstanding athleticism. Tennis players are excellent examples of visual/spatial intelligence at work. Awareness of the court, assessing the speed of the ball, the movement of the opponent and previous knowledge of a particular player’s style constitutes a constantly changing whole that a great player is always adjusting to along with a host of other factors. The best players exhibit intelligence as well as athletic excellence as they make lightening fast decisions. In the heat of an exciting volley, my whole body is twitching, not indifferent to the excitement unfolding in my mirror neurons. Watching these things trains my capacity for awareness and concentration on a purpose.
In the past, when people were curious about why I liked watching tennis, I used to say something about how much I loved saying “wow”, appreciated being impressed, and assuming some good brain chemistry was involved. I later learned that my body’s pleasure response was rewarding me with endorphins for attention to something I admired and dopamine for the unexpected shots and physical stimulation. This has survival value since admiration stimulates our own potential for greatness and novelty focuses attention on something new to learn. Through my mirror neurons I get to play along with the best, the residuals of which are there to inspire me when I sit down to draw.
Today the look that comes closest to the feeling I got from Borg’s is found on the face of Rafael Nadal. But whereas Borg’s intensity was of having his prey in sight, Nadal projects the feeling of a warrior vanquishing a foe, of something being conquered. The war cry accompanying Maria Sharapova’s hits contrasts with the steely sense of purpose on her face before she serves. What we see tunes the qualities in ourselves that respond to it. There is no one best way to play tennis. There are as many styles of play as great players. I’ve often wondered how Roger Federer managed to slow time, gliding easily through points where other players were rushing around. Then I read about new research showing that brain waves vibrate at a higher frequency during peak experiences like intense competition. So if the brain is operating faster, then clock time would seem slower. When we’re most deeply involved we have plenty of time.
The thing the winners most have in common is concentration and attitude, not the same attitude but each individual version of purity of purpose, unswerving determination. When Sharapova’s expression shifted to frustration, Dinara Safina’s face showed her prey cornered, moving in for the kill.
Our brains are changed by what we pay attention to, our reward system designed to keep us doing what’s helps us grow. It’s a pleasure (more endorphins) to see players from all over the world competing together without politics. Most fans don’t necessarily root for the players from their countries but for qualities of individual style. My endorphins flow seeing men’s and women’s tennis treated equally as part of the same tournament. Watching tennis is immersion in a world where excellence rules. Maybe what the feeling of inspiration really is involves the activation of those circuits where our own excellence wants to bloom.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


Cultural Expansion: Building a Bigger Picture

“Wisdom is directly proportional to the size of the group whose well being it takes into account.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self
I remember sitting in a waiting room while my husband Michael was getting physical therapy after an operation to his hand. As a guitar player this recovery was intensely important so we were both concerned at how raw the wound still looked two weeks later. I was sitting next to a somewhat intimidating looking man in a sleeveless T-shirt. He took up more space than his waiting room chair but I crossed the silence barrier when my attention fixated on the enormous wound that snaked up his forearm, the center of which was as raw looking as Michael’s palm. My curiosity overtook my timidity,
“How long ago did that happen?” I asked.
He was an articulate and self-reflective storyteller. After my surge of relief when he said it had been a month since his stabbing, I heard a life experience so unlike any I’d ever heard before, it was like traveling to a foreign country. What I was most taken with was his attitude. Right up to collapsing from blood loss on his father’s front yard he had this intense awareness of being. During his recovery he was all gratitude. He hadn’t been able to work at his job as a welder since it happened, but he was determined and optimistic knowing he would do what was necessary to gain full use of his arm again. I left there feeling improved by the conversation.
One of the purposes of emotion is to underscore the importance of an experience in memory, so the fact that I remember this so vividly after all these years shows that it made a deep impression on my worldview.
Gregory Bateson defined information as “the difference that makes a difference”.
When a new bit of knowledge or experience actually changes the way we view the world, it enlarges the scope of our understanding. The world is full of untapped sources of knowledge from which to build a bigger picture of reality. Every human being is a library of unique experiences that form a particular window on the world. No one view can see it all. Each individual story has something to teach us. When someone else’s background is radically different from our own, we can learn more than we might from someone similar to ourselves. When we see or hear something we are already familiar with there’s no real change in our worldview though it may feel good to have our view supported. When we come across something different from what we’re used to we need to adjust our model, which is more difficult and often provokes resistance. Rejecting what doesn’t fit an existing view, using up intellectual resources in the effort to discredit what doesn’t match the existing outlook, is protecting a limited picture. The right/wrong way of seeing interferes with acquiring new information. To not get bogged down in defense of one way of seeing frees valuable mental resources for accommodating more, sometimes contradictory, ideas in the mind at once. This and a tolerance for uncertainty are characteristics of high intelligence that we would do well to cultivate.
An appreciation of difference leads to the intellectual enrichment of us all as we come to understand how personal experience forms every individual viewpoint. To really see a circumstance requires as many views as available. John Dewey wrote that when the personal is taken into account it would revolutionize philosophy. This revolution liberates us from the need to match a standardized way of seeing that denies us access to the full range of ideas that combines to create a bigger picture.
Understanding that every point of view produces valid assessments of some aspect of reality welcomes the many ways of seeing that have been ignored in a world where power has decided what is true.
To create an atmosphere that includes all points of view rather than setting them in opposition, invites knowledge. Put aside the competition to have the right idea and we can have a whole landscape of ideas to choose from to match a particular problem or situation. Insight into a range of ways to consider an issue offers more opportunities to think creatively. With a larger intellectual range established everyone is set free to speculate more widely and more interesting constructions and hybrids can occur. The greater the range of ideas from which to draw the better the final synthesis will be.
Diversity is important for a robust ecology of ideas. Just like a larger gene pool creates hybrid vigor strengthening survivability, so can a larger meme pool invigorate the world of mind.
In his book, In the Mind's Eye, Thomas G. West suggests that the skill of the future won’t be having the right ideas but ability to revise our thinking as new information flows in. He writes, “We spend almost no time on developing the intuitive core of understanding, on building up the ability to model reality in our mind.” Hanging on to one model of reality impairs the ability to grow. Letting go of the idea of one worldview that holds for everyone makes it easier to ride the flow of proliferating information and adjust our image as necessary.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mental Organism

My imagination was fired up by the discovery that Thomas Edison saw humans as swarms of life energy units that persist for awhile then disperse and eventually join other energy units to form something else. As an image for death it’s more comforting than the image of a body decaying. It also puts emphasis on consciousness as opposed to the material form. A similar dynamic occurs with a class. For a time we are a swarm of minds that each influence the other and bring out different qualities and ideas that none of us might have arrived at alone. It’s a mental organism that grows and matures over time. When it’s time frame ends, I feel the loss as the energy units that were accustomed to being part of the organism made of the patterns of the class were left with no place to go. Until they get caught up in new currents they bounce around an empty place where something valuable used to be.
The disintegration of any strange attractor (pattern of energy that holds its form) is a kind of death, but the word shifts meaning with the understanding it was always part of a sea of energy flow that is constantly reorganizing. At every level from cells and systems, to societal groups and the larger fields of consciousness that organize the physical realm like a semester organizes a class, the patterns of collaborating elements of consciousness repeat at every scale.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Illusory Separation

The I Ching uses the metaphor, “progress like a hamster”, to illustrate an attitude too focused on accumulation. The fact that hamsters like to hoard shows how old the instinct is in our evolution. The emphasis on things embedded in noun-based language underlies the materialistic attitude toward living. If things are all that matters then success is based on how many things you have.
Erich Fromm wrote, “The nature of the having mode of existence follows from the nature of private property… It transforms everybody and everything into something dead and subject to another’s power.” Consumerism is the pathology. Because so much of the vital experience of living is left out, we cure our emptiness with consumption. Introspection is reduced to tabulation of what we’ve accumulated. Not only do we amass things but also nouns that aren’t really things. We accumulate achievements, degrees, honors, awards, promotions and results in general. The attention to outcomes rather than process, of accomplishments we can quantify rather experience as it unfolds, is part of the having mode. Dissatisfactions arise because we don’t have as much as someone else. Comparison to others takes attention away from the unfolding process of our own life. Vitality is sucked from the moment when attention is focused on results. The self is just another possession. Thinking of the body as something we have creates anxiety about losing it.
Activity is the mode of being. Doing is feeling alive. Peak experiences occur when the involvement is so complete we lose consciousness of the self. Full attention is absorbed by the activity itself. Being happy is immersion in the act of living. Stretching out into the world is the action of growth, whether it’s learning or making, or listening or appreciating. Images for growth can direct attention to the richness of being and our interconnection to larger patterns. Awareness of the dependence on so many other factors that support our flourishing enlarges our sense of connection to the larger whole. We are not separate. We’re woven into the network and participate in it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Dividing Words

More than a hundred years ago, William James wrote,
“Language works against our perception of truth.”
We haven’t heeded the warning. In our efforts to tame the world, the epidemic of pinning experience down with words may be a defense against the proliferation of information. Giving something a name gives us the illusion of knowing it. We label people, things, events, and even sensations and abstract qualities, that are then limited by the definitions of those labels. Every label is an act of separation which in itself is a falsification given the overlapping spectrum of qualities that bleed through the categories. The range of complex individuality often lumped in one psychiatric diagnosis is obscured by the label, which focuses on just a few elements. As Peter Breggin wrote in Beyond Conflict, “Many individuals who become diagnosed by psychiatrists are in reality suffering from oppression.” The diagnosis, by contributing to the reduction of personal reality, may contribute to the oppression.
Nobel prize winning scientist David Bohm felt that many of the world’s problems had to do with the noun based nature of language fragmenting the totality of fluctuating reality. By focusing our attention on things we feel like things ourselves, separate and alienated from everything else. The nature of the quantum level is unbroken wholeness, all interconnected and flowing. In his book "Wholeness and the Implicate Order", Bohm wrote, ”…the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is …what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that is confronting us today. “ Our tendency to take our descriptions as real creates the illusion that the divisions we make are real. My drawing “Explication” attempts to sidestep the traditional figure/ground divisions and point attention to the flow and unfolding as well underlying organizing principles that influence movement. Stanislav Grof, in his book, "The Holotropic Mind", wrote, “In this world where everything is in flux, always moving, the use of nouns to describe what is happening can only mislead us.”
Words divide. Perception unifies. When we want to understand something we need to see it in context, in the mesh of relationships that constitute its meaning. When language is most successful it creates an image in someone’s mind, which connects it to a pattern already understood. Experience is filled with qualities that resist naming. It includes the expectations created by an individual past and the underlying direction that guides our energies into the future. The fluid shifts in the process of growth, which is always adapting to changing conditions, is best illuminated by art. In the mid-twentieth century the philosopher Susanne Langer suggested that psychology had much to learn from art. She said, “Art is the creation of symbols for human feeling.” Now that neuroscience has shown that feeling directs thought, the time has come for the closer examination of how art can reveal the complexities of the human psyche.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

An Image For Time

Recently the National Science Foundation released a visualization challenge. In it’s solicitation for entries is this statement.
“You can do science without graphics . But it’s very difficult to communicate it in the absence of pictures. Indeed some insights can only be made widely comprehensible as images. “
Advances in medicine have followed advances in imaging. The current interest in maps is a recognition of this as a primary way we organize information. The more complex the information, the more necessary images become for communicating important relationships. To understand we need to see, to be shown ,not to be told. Inner models of reality form the basis for thought. When the models aren’t adequate to the new information acquired we need to revise our images or our thought will be distorted.
Thinking of the passage of events as a timeline entails a sense of loss as things disappear into the past. But that may not be true of how we actually experience it. The sequential nature of our left hemisphere created our concept of time, but that is a feature of the way we process experience, not reality itself.
Exploring different images for time may give us a way of seeing it that goes deeper and feels more true to what we experience.
When my grandfather died I was really torn up about it. In the weeks that followed I began to feel that though he wasn’t there physically anymore, all the meaning he’d had in my life was unchanged. I began to think of time as like a big painting in progress, and that he was always there in his part of the painting. That part might not be developing anymore but the richness of the parts he created for me remained. It wasn’t until much later than I began to think more deeply about the analogy of time to a painting. An ant crawling across the painting would think the blue area came before the red area but it had to do with moving in a line through changes that were there all along. Unlike ideas of time as all there at once and locked in, what’s living and growing develops that area of the painting. When an area isn’t developing anymore it doesn’t go away, it just stops changing. This image creates a different analogy for time that includes the qualities we experience and not just the dry units of measurement. Analogy, the structural similarity between things, is how we understand something new. We compare it to something similar that we understand already. Images are powerful tools for understanding. In a world growing increasingly more complex, finding better images can broaden how we think.