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.