Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mental Formation


Putting aside obligation, which changes the pleasure of everything, giving can be one of our most pleasurable experiences. Since the brain produces endorphins to reinforce behavior that’s good for our growth, the fact that endorphins are produced for giving underscores the importance of relationships that weave us into the fabric of humanity. It feels good to help others whether it’s giving a gift, or helping clear the snow off a car or even simply taking an interest in what they have to tell us. The pleasure is a message about our interconnectedness. Social isolation is a serious risk factor contributing to illness. Contributing to the good of the larger whole is good for us as well. Edgar Cayce used to say something to the effect that all of life is the body of god. Contributing to the well being of any part expresses our connection to the creative life force that links us all.
Showing appreciation for others fosters the health of the whole. Making a gift is a way of offering a symbol of the attention given to that person and ultimately attention is love. In whatever form it takes, attention is the greatest gift we have to offer. People feel seen and connected just through the act of response to them. It also liberates us from the competitive materialism that stains the holidays. (Negative attention is not really attention to the other but a projection of the mind from which it arises.)
When I had fewer relatives than I do now, I used to make each one a personal gift. Everything about the process was pleasurable, the time reflecting on the relationship, the particular person’s interests, the ongoing consciousness of giving from inception to completion of the gift and even the building of my skills and capacities. In the act of giving, the holiday itself is more alive with the awareness of offering something of myself rather than the mass-produced purchases that never seem personal.
Now with so many people in my life, though I make a few personal presents, each year I do bookmarks, drawings invented out of that year’s moods, that can be reproduced and laminated, and given to everyone. I get special pleasure out of bestowing them on people who would least expect it, who affected my life in some positive way even though I might not know them very well. It’s clear that I expect nothing in return, that it’s not a trade of presents, but an act of appreciation.
The fact that people have been reading what I’ve written here has been a tremendous encouragement. The motivation for writing this blog arises from the feeling that I may be able to offer some thoughts and a way of looking at things that could be helpful to others. So, to express my gratitude, this year one of my bookmarks is being offered to you, to print and laminate (I use clear contact paper on both sides) as thanks for your encouragement of my project.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Formative Fields


The theme of connectedness is emerging all around us. It’s not hard to see why.
Our shared environment is a conspicuous truth in the digital “noosphere”. That was a word that philosopher/ theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin used to refer to the atmosphere of consciousness in which we participate. He saw individuals as thinking molecules in this larger whole, contributing our perception to a larger inclusive awareness. The Internet mirrors this, is isomorphic in structure. Every individual mind is the hub of a wheel of connections and life experience that creates a personal viewpoint that influences and is influencing the whole. Similarly, in the physical world, just as we are always adjusting to our surroundings, our surroundings are always adjusting to us. I walk down the path and the birds fly off. Leaves and twigs are displaced by my steps and the air currents my presence initiates. Squirrels that know I have peanuts run toward me. There is no way of standing outside, and those are just the visible reverberations. Whenever new ideas start pouring from me. I say an inner thanks for the creative source for which I’m privileged to be a conduit. The role of the being I am with its accumulation of knowledge and unique perspective are the material that tune me to new meanings and are my language to communicate. Increasing my learning increases what is available to me to access, like familiarity with the music played in a concert can increase appreciation of the meaning given to it by the musician. I’ve heard my husband Michael play the same jazz standards uncountable times, but they still have the power to stop me, make me listen and sink into the expression he gives it at that moment. I Ching speaks of the holiness of music and its power “ to loosen the grip of the obscure emotions.”
There’s a purity to our connection with music. It can capture us. As Peter Gabriel said recently in an interview,” I love music because it plugs right into the emotions.” He felt it was more of the spirit than the other arts. John Dewey said, ”vision is a spectator, but hearing is a participant.” Vision can support the illusion of something outside of us, and we can choose to look the other way. Hearing seems to happen right inside us and is harder to shut out. It seems to merge with our personal awareness.
David Bohm used the word “artamovement” for the continuous act of “fitting” that is the essential quality of the whole. Rather than building blocks in the world machine, we are melodic lines in the symphony of consciousness. We fit what we have to offer into the structure unfolding around us like jazz improvises around the shape of the tune.
Thinking of many modes of vibration in harmony would be a better image to contemplate Bohm’s conception of individual elements as abstractions from an unbroken wholeness. The worldview that sees reality comprised of separate building blocks leaves us alienated. The emphasis on competition for resources creates opposition and antagonism. With an image of a deity outside of ourselves, this separation underlies everything. In a worldview that sees all as continuous movement in which we participate, we are naturally inclined to cooperate, to add our bit to the ongoing creation. Guided by the image of music, we try to blend with the group, work together, harmonize, fit what we have to offer into a larger whole. We feel a greater sense of responsibility toward each other and our environment when we feel like part of the same thing, the body of life, and the entirety of consciousness.
A Muslim reader wrote to me about how the Christian image of God could get in the way of seeing the deeper, more comprehensive view of the Spirit. Even images can begin to operate like labels, replacing the reality of a subject with the definition and dogma that builds up around the image/concept. “The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”
Just as Viktor Frankl concluded that the specific meanings are not as important as the search for meaning, we might be better off not clinging so tightly to the current images that emphasize separation and search for new images, lots of them, to help us reflect and gain access to the pleasure of our connection.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Questioning Definitions

There are a few famous lines that each of us hold close to our hearts, that came to us at just the time we needed to hear them and seemed novel and revolutionary. A transforming phrase is a work of art in a concept. When Malcolm X said,” You don’t have to accept anyone else’s definition of who you are”, I was stirred to my foundations. For someone who had been defined by others at every turn, others’ plans and expectations meant to fit me into a narrow cultural slot, it was a shocking thought that took hold and shook me out of the hardening mold. In varying degrees we all grow up surrounded by cultural templates to which we must conform. Serious labels with ominous definitions are slapped on behavior that doesn’t fit the template, doesn’t fit into the cultural machine. This is one of the problems with the old machine paradigm that holds that everything can be explained by the limited actions allowed by the particular function of a part in the machine. It reduces the complex human person to a mechanical function in one of the accepted roles the society and culture has scripted. Parents are agents of the culture and do what the culture says must be done, but in the process young people are bound, limited by standards that signify their unimportance. In Susan Sontag’s novel “In America”, after a young man kills himself the protagonist thinks, “How I wished I could have explained to him that he didn’t have to be what he thought himself sentenced to be. For isn’t that why one thinks of ending one’s life?” and later she wrote, “Happiness depends on not being trapped in your individual existence, a container with your name on it.”
A theme that is emerging in some students’ work right now is emancipation from these limitations. They are creating new images for spirituality, trying to enlarge their view of being in the world that includes vast space, the universe within and without, commingled with ourselves. This is exactly the shift of values that can bring us back into harmony with our environment. Once we are identified with a larger whole it becomes difficult to violate any part of it, because it’s part of us. It makes us joyful (stimulates endorphins) when we help others because we are interdependent. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it so eloquently, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated nature of existence.”
Discussion of art in class is richer because multiple minds thinking together can arrive at ideas that depend on the interstimulation. The web is the metaphor, and the capacity to weave new connections infinite. Not limited by the definitions of a profit driven society we can experience the beauty of being within and throughout an interconnected whole.
James Hillman said that he often thought it wasn’t that his patients were sick but that they’d failed to adapt to a sick society.
The age of competition has made a mess of things, an arms race, war after war, corporate subterfuge, steroids in sports, the proliferation of cheating on every front because winning is seen as the highest value. Apathy and cynicism are pervasive. Because of the limitations of the roles within this system, human beings haven’t begun to realize their potential. They’ve been locked in a conditioned mindset that sabotages growth.
Just like art can change the way you see something, one sentence can be enough to unlock our chains. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It’s the first step to building new ways of seeing ourselves. If you think people should be kinder, more sensitive, then be kinder and more sensitive. The young people of today are the front lines in a change in consciousness, and a shift to an age of cooperation seems inevitable. They know there is more to being human than the definitions they’ve inherited, and I’m excited to see the changes they will contribute to a new way of seeing our potential as a species.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


The Center of Art

In counseling a committed and highly original student concerning the fact that in class discussions no one said anything about her work, I suggested pushing the emotional content. She has beautiful technique and important things she wants to show, but vision depends on having an inner template, something to connect it to that we understand. Her imagery was too unfamiliar, too outside the known, to pull them into its world. But no matter how foreign the imagery, if the emotions sound a chord, we connect and keep looking. The arrangement of light, color and forms in space registers as a feeling before we identify what it is. We orient ourselves automatically to being in a place and for the time our attention is absorbed by it, a painting is a place. Our relationship to where we are is central to navigating life and is therefore the most potent of all metaphors. Neurologist Antonio Damasio wrote, “Feeling, in the pure and narrow sense of the word, was the idea of the body being a certain way.” Emotional life starts with where we are, and that’s a statement that can be taken at multiple levels.
The plane we stand on is hugely important to our sense of where we are in space. In a famous experiment called the Visual Cliff, newborns of many species, including human babies, were presented with a particular visual situation. A cliff with a checkerboard pattern was covered by strong plexiglass and at the other side was something that smelled good to eat to entice them to cross. Even with the tactile evidence of a clear barrier that would keep them from falling, not one of them was willing to cross. One of the researchers painted a trompe l’oeil version on the nursery floor when they had a baby. Sure enough, even though it was just paint and the baby could feel solid floor, the baby wouldn’t crawl across it. We inherit a physical responsiveness to our sense of the plane that supports us and adjust to it instinctively. Adults thought nothing of walking on it, which suggests how powerful learning about illusions can be in helping us recognize them and not be taken in. It also shows us that we can overcome inherited responses to the world, an idea with far reaching implications. Knowledge permits us to stand outside of our immediate circumstance and reflect from a distance before acting.
Being outside the mainstream offers a different overview. So much of the greatest art comes from the fringe, the outer perimeter of society, the pain of disconnection often motivating the expression. The mythic theme of separation, ubiquitous in great literature, is what we all deal with to some extent, perhaps much more than we realize. When we see it expressed in art, there is consolation in the shared experience even when the particulars are different. The insights offered by art become part of our sense of where we’ve been so enlarge the territory of our understanding.
When Paul Miller, aka DJSpooky, gave the keynote speech at the Transformations Conference at MICA this past October, he said black art had moved from the fringe to the center. I thought about it for days afterward and couldn’t help but think it has always been at the creative center, though not necessarily recognized as such. Being on the outside may be a necessary condition for offering something new to art. Achieving perspective on a difficult circumstance requires getting beyond it. As a jazz fan all my life, my focus has always been on the innovators, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, so many, who found new ways to express the struggle of being and understood the feeling of separation in a more overt way than the more privileged part of the population. To feel the separation more acutely intensifies the need to go inward. Van Gogh was not part of the mainstream art of his time but his paintings help us feel that sense of being passionately alive. James Baldwin spent much of his life abroad, not given the stature here he deserved, yet reading his work is like experiencing a force of nature, so intense are the feelings expressed which bring my own feelings more intensely to life. Through great art, we learn the most important lessons of being human, how we feel and where we are. Just like history describes the events of a time, art shows us what it feels like to be human. It brings us together in the heart of human experience.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Personal Rite

What We Recognize

What are we saying when we say to a friend, ”you’re not yourself today”? What’s the missing ingredient when the physical appearance, the arrangement of features, the proportions of body parts, all the things machines are programmed to recognize, haven’t changed, but the most essential element, the thing that makes people themselves, seems to be absent?
Alfred Adler once wrote, “Watch only movement” in advising psychiatrists about how to understand their clients. What people say may be the expression of their ideal of themselves and not consistent with their behavior. He emphasized that their actions contained the key to their troubles; the way they present themselves and respond to events reveals their expectations about how they’ll be received by life. It shows in personal gestures and patterns of day to day living (Adler coined the word “lifestyle”).
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Action is character” reminding us that the key to personality is in behavior. We reveal ourselves in motion. Who we are has more to do with the attitude that coordinates our response to the world than what we look like.
I was fascinated when I read that Jung said he didn’t need to know about his clients’ past, he could see it all in the first ten minutes of their meeting. The particulars were far less important than the response patterns and body language that revealed the nature of their fears and defenses. If this is what one fears and defends against, this reveals the dynamics of early life, where there were very real fears and situations where the individual psyche of the client needed defending.
Setting an example is offering a behavioral pattern in motion. It reflects the underlying attitude toward experience. When we’re growing up, we mimic the example of others to learn the behavioral norms, and in assuming the actions, adopt the underlying attitude.
The attitude is the foundation of body language, organizing the posture and pace of movement. The success of bodywork for psychological issues is likely due to the different feelings that accompany new body positions. The head sinking between the shoulders is self protective, like a turtle retreating into the shell. Straighten the body and the attitude shifts accordingly. The I Ching states, ”With the back straight the ego ceases to function”, suggesting that our particular crookedness is the result of the individual life experience that shapes the personal ego.
When people talk about role models, they’re referring to modes of behavior, ways of living they want to emulate. The very first insight that pulled me into the I Ching was that being a “superior person” depended on the parts of oneself one chooses to cultivate, we all have superior and inferior parts and what rules our time is up to us. In the worst and best of circumstances we have a choice about the attitude with which we approach it.
Today there are workshops that teach people the best ways to influence others by mirroring their body language. Politicians learn to control their facial expressions. What they can’t control is the way their faces get from one expression to another, what Paul Ekman called “microexpressions”. We may not see them consciously, but unconsciously we’re aware of the contradiction. When we distrust people, we sense the inconsistency in their actions. When we admire, we feel the harmony. What we call “charisma” may be connected to the wholeness in an individual’s expressive movement.
Our mirror neurons mimic the motion we see, and that internal pattern of neural firing enables us to feel the meaning of those gestures. A student once said she could recognize me from a distance because of the way I walked. If a person isn’t moving in their normal way we know that something’s not right. The attitude toward being we’ve come to know is missing. The dance of gesture reflecting a personal stance toward life may be the essential element in recognition.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mind Space

Mapping Knowledge

Maps are powerful tools for transmitting visual understanding. Expanding beyond the conventional idea of a roadmap, new maps broaden our understanding of information because they build on a core feature in how we structure memory. The hippocampus is the primary part of the brain where we map the world as we experience it, and this inner map of what we know is key to understanding where we are in reality and metaphor. It is central to memory, transferring short term to long term, and suggesting that long term memories are coordinated by our inner map of what we know, and that what we know is always in relationship to other things we know. It’s this power to show connections that leads to insight.
When I look at maps of information, like resources and where they’re distributed in one picture of the world, I see the areas rich in minerals instantly by the density of their markers in certain places. If a map of toxic waste sites in our country includes areas of poverty, the relationship we see constitutes an insight that will influence our thinking in the future. Building on the capacity to map relationships could improve education by leaps and bounds. My excitement over my new book “Geographica” grows as page after page shows me something in moments that takes hundreds of words to describe. Looking at a picture of the world that shows fishing areas on the same map as offshore oil rigs, or the one with the world’s food producing regions mapped against the main industrial centers, one can quickly see potential dangers to our food sources and where they are greatest. Mapping information can solve problems too. Edward Tufte tells a fascinating story in his book “Visual Explanations”, about a mystery solved through the visual representation of the evidence. Just listing the dates and deaths in a cholera epidemic offered no insights into the cause, but when their locations were plotted on a map that included the water sources, the proximity of water sources and disease density was revealing. Proximity is a connection not shown in a line of facts.
There’s a growing interest in maps that reflects their importance in understanding the world more holistically. Not only showing distances and positioning, new atlases show movement of populations and capital, the historical spread of empires, where the resources are and where the corporations locate. As they become more widespread in education, factors influencing news events not covered in written articles are there to be seen. What we may never have seen before, put in a visual format we’ve come to understand, may illuminate dynamics in an event that make it more comprehensible.
We see the relationships of roads in the arrangement of lines on paper. The sensors in a rat’s hippocampus fire in the shape of the maze as it runs. The gestalt psychologists used the term “isomorphism” for the structural similarity between relationships in different modes. It’s the basis for metaphor, analogy, and our ability to read maps.
When sensors were applied to the human hippocampus, scientists saw that when the concept of mother was invoked a specific neuron in the hippocampus fired. This shouldn’t lead us to think that the cell contained the whole of mom; it was just where the neural circuits for her or the ideas of her connect to the hippocampal map. Thus everything we fix in long-term memory finds its location in relation to all the others.
The hippocampus may well be responsible for “metaknowledge”, our sense of knowing what we know, of being aware of what we’ve experienced before we actually remember the specifics. If we’re asked a trivia question we don’t know, we know not to bother trying to remember if it hasn’t passed through our minds before that. This awareness of the whole of what we know is one of the capacities that most amazes me. Faulkner remarked on it so poetically when he wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” Our overall awareness of the contents of our past experience directs our conscious attention where it needs to go. Likewise, my eyes lead me to what I need to see because my eyes, directed by the look of the whole, the gestalt, go to what my inner overall picture of the world values that needs attention.
Like a spatial map helps us go places we’ve never been, artists add to the map of human consciousness and enlarge the scope of where we can go conceptually. The map is our tool for navigating. As the world becomes more complex anything that helps us find our way is essential. With overwhelming quantities of information, remembering facts will be less important than finding our way through the facts and getting an overview of how they relate.
Maps educate our sense of how to structure information in a way that emphasizes significant relationships that transcend categories. Building a more sophisticated understanding of how we can use them and make them could revolutionize education and our sense of the world as a whole.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vanishing Point (detail) Nov 2007 to June 2009

Currently showing in the Meyerhoff Gallery at Maryland Institute College of Art until mid October

Evolving Intelligence

Intelligence is evolving because it has to. Better minds will be required to solve the complex problems to come. Scientists note that the brain size of our ancestors jumped dramatically when they started using tools. Tools extended the range of our capacities and the neural territory to handle them. Neurologists point to stimulation as another key to developing intelligence. In studies with rats, those with the most stimulation (toys, and climbing things in their cages) became the smartest rats. The brain grew in weight and density as the connections proliferated. The level of stimulation from our modern tool, the computer, should have some pretty astounding effects on human beings. A whole new virtual world of various kinds of stimulation is the environment in which humans now develop.
Thirty years of teaching has convinced me young people are getting smarter. A freshman drawing class sits in front of me and I’m happily impressed, and know I will learn from them. Growing up with the Internet, they have a global awareness. The connections they’ve already gotten to make span a wider realm. It’s easier for them to see our state of “interbeing”, the word that Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh uses for the interconnectedness of the biosphere. Psychiatrist Peter Breggin in his book Beyond Conflict wrote that wisdom grows with the size of the group with which you identify. To put it in visual terms, wisdom grows with the size and scope of your view of reality, the bigger the picture the wiser the insight. More variables and their relationships are taken into account. Wisdom is the deeper level of intelligence we need to evolve as a species. Increasing young people’s awareness of interbeing, the computer has contributed to the growth of the human mind.
It won’t stop there. We’re at the threshold of another big step in cognitive evolution because we now have an even more powerful tool – information about how the brain works. The more we know about how the brain works, the better we’ll be able to use it. Making better use of visual intelligence will be part of this growth. Winston Churchill painted on weekends, not so much for the paintings, but because he said it educated the highest properties of mind, understanding balance and proportion. What we see and are made aware of in a painting can sensitize us to key relationships that underlie thought in many realms. Math uses the word “ratios” to talk about proportions. There’s a new book out called “Ratio”, and it’s about cooking. Rather than give recipes, the author, Michael Ruhlman, has things like bread or custard broken down into ratios of ingredients to each other- 1 part water, 1 part flour and so on.
An evolution in intelligence that has as a fundamental feature the awareness of ecological interconnectedness should bring with it a sense of responsibility. Nathaniel Branden felt that morality meant taking responsibility for what enters our field of awareness. Once aware we have the choice to give it our attention or not.
Visual art increases our awareness. By expressing with imagery what it’s like to be a human being alive in this time and place, artists increase the scope of our perception. Every point of view is valuable because it enlarges our picture of reality. Art tunes our perception of the underlying structures necessary for a more comprehensive understanding based on the whole, and stimulates the creativity of the viewer. In a “Manifesto on Planetary Consciousness”, The Dalai Lama and Ervin Laszlo write, “Cultivating [creativity] is a precondition of finding our way toward a globally interconnected society.” The capacities we train by looking at art are essential for the necessary evolution of our minds.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009



The only time a color made me cry, it was a green. Tears welled up at the sight of a bright yellow green. Acres of it, a brand new spring green, in rural Delaware. The late afternoon light was hitting it so that the field itself seemed to glow with it’s own light.
Yet, if there were a color I’ve used the least in my drawings, it would be green. It’s not generally a color I’ve liked very much. My work has drawn more from the far ends of the visible spectrum, the violets of the high energy side and the longer wavelengths at the red end. Maybe it’s connected to my focus on less visible realities, the enormous range of frequencies of which we’re not consciously aware but are influential components of reality. Green is the most visible band in the spectrum, situated right in the middle. We have more receptors for green than any other and perhaps because of this, green is a soothing color, conveying a sense of the known. I’ve read that green glasses have been used to help with facial tics. Perhaps seeing more green exerts a calming influence on our physiology. I can’t help but wonder if the reason I felt so laid back in France might have related to spending my days amidst so much green.
There was a study done in Munich in the early seventies where whole rooms were painted a single color and then people lived in them. Light blue actually stimulated intelligence raising scores on IQ tests.
We don’t have to see the color. Just like we don’t need to see the sun when it burns our skin. Colored wavelengths are absorbed by the skin and produce hormonal changes that affect our chemical reactions.
These studies haunt me when I’m watching tennis. Some sports, like wrestling, are aware of the effects and flip a coin to see who wears red and who wears blue since statistics show red wins more often. It’s a stimulant that raises blood pressure, pulse and respiration, and operating at a faster speed is an advantage. The fact that it can affect balance may not matter so much in wrestling, but when I see it on Roger Federer I worry that he might fall, though if anyone can properly channel the extra momentum, he can. When Rafael Nadal wore pink at the French Open and he was struggling, I kept yelling at the TV screen for him to change his shirt. I don’t really know if the particular shade of pink had any role in the different attitude he seemed to present, but I knew certain shades of pink have a tranquilizing effect. Pink has been studied and actively used to calm people in some prisons and mental hospitals. I felt like it took the edge off his normal warrior focus. The scrubs in Shock trauma are pink for a reason. I’m glad he’s wearing yellow now though I still think he played best in green.
The topiary gardens have reunited me with green. As I finish the drawings I started there, it’s a pleasure to feel those sensations again. I can’t help but wonder whether everyone should do a green picture (drawing, collage, finger painting…) from time to time, not for the result, but for the sensation.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Extended Convergence

On Being Sampled

“Sampling” isn’t really the right word. My work was used with permission and I was paid a fee for use, so it doesn’t fit the controversy about music sampling. But I’ve come to think of sampling as the use of one person’s art in another person’s art. This is why I embrace the word. Sampling draws from the media environment in which we’re embedded, more pervasive than ever before in history, so ubiquitous as to often blot out the natural world. Images are an increasingly important part of that environment. Today the primary sources of inspiration and influence often arise from manufactured surroundings, real and virtual. Having the creations of others weave through new work feels like an honest reflection of modern experience.
When I worked on my interactive computer piece “CAVE”, I used snippets of radio broadcasts layered on top of each other because it felt like the most realistic soundscape to accompany the animations. We live in a background drone of radios, ipods, TV and movie sound, the sounds of machines, and hum of computers and fluorescent lights. Visually, besides multiple moving screens from palm size to giant plasma, we pass billboards, signs, iconic or flashing, displays of all kinds. Creative commercials make deep impressions, making their point in seconds then repeating it again and again, strengthening the neural circuits. The real landscape of our lives is not the ground beneath us; it’s the creative work of other minds manifest in the constructed environment. How can artists respond honestly without using what is most alive in their world. What I think is most alive is the outpouring of creative minds. The crowd at the Jason Mraz concert loved him, loved the feelings his music embodied, and it was thrilling to contribute something to the collective experience. It was like a group enchantment as everyone was lifted up by the focus on love and connection, an overall advancement of the collective mind. I feel honored to be in the mix, to be a building block for more art. Jon Marro, whose creativity flows through many channels, used our work for his materials, matched the sensibilities of a song to a feeling in an image and vice versa developing an expressive synthesis that was his creation and contribution to the whole. Not only did I get to be a part of Jon and Jason’s work, I got to see my images fulfill my own purposes in a bigger way.
The aspect of my work that matters most to me, showing how much more there is than can be known by our minds, so many levels to the mystery of being, was amplified by being a two to three story backdrop. Filling the visual space of the stage it carved the space open, folded it back and showed the dark behind the daylight-blue-sky of my image. Set design was one of my youthful pursuits, designing one for high school production, and another for a community theatre in my twenties, so to find myself having that effect on the show, to create a space that could stir individual contemplation feels like such a gift, an unexpected expansion of what my images can do. What made this different from set design and more like sampling was that it was an existing drawing, I published it here in May under the title “Converging Views”, a title that has now grown in meaning.
Picasso said that when a picture was finished it was dead for the artist but lived on in the minds of the viewers. I feel grateful to have my work, my memes, combined with the art of others and be part of the perceptions of a new generation. To resist being sampled resists the growth of the seeds we sow. Seeing my drawing so big, supporting this captivating performer felt similar to seeing my niece get married this weekend, an excitement at watching something deeply connected to me with an independent existence at a new threshold.
To see video

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Cultural Patterns

Watching French parents with their children was always a pleasure. (There was one uptight woman who frequently barked at her children, but there are exceptions to any generality) Families in France seemed to have a relaxed friendliness, children being children and parents fondly watchful while not interfering. Everyone seems to feel confident of their standing in the relationship, secure in their bond. French parents seemed to truly enjoy their children whereas American parents seem more focused on problems. Since the puritans sired our national culture, the attitude that comes with the image of a Maker, sets to molding the children into a specific ideal model with criticism as the primary tool. Some kids are born with the qualities that grow comfortably into the standard. Many don’t. Parents in the US have been so browbeaten by all the numbers and standards their children are supposed to match, that they are anxious at every deviation, so attention is too often focused on flaws. They’re vigilant at finding and eliminating any imperfection. It’s like clipping the petals of a rose so they match the picture in the book. Whose to say the child’s difference doesn’t indicate an improvement on the species?
The difference in attitude toward child rearing is like the difference between a shepherd and a trainer. The problem is cultural, not personal. Listening to a lecture by Alan Watts, there was laughter in the auditorium when he said that in America being a child is like being here on probation, you have to measure up. We laugh at what we recognize, a cultural pattern we understand from the inside. Many of us have grown up thinking we’re not good enough to begin with, that things are wrong with us that must be corrected, whether it’s medical, or the phases of moods and emotions, or how we learn. I heard the young man who recently sailed around the whole world saying on the radio, that education didn’t allow for how much a teenager is really capable of, that high school years are often like waiting around, with no serious extension of knowledge involved. The ones that do best are gifted at remembering and following directions, of matching the ideal of one narrow group of measurements. There’s very little room for the acquisition of knowledge and skills and most of all the flourishing of personal interest. What’s new and creative may wither if not be actively discouraged. The emphasis on correction emphasizes authority so if the child resists, the relationship becomes a power struggle.
After France I was at an American beach, and twice in an hour I saw mothers dismiss their child’s perception- “I was stung by a jelly fish”-“No you weren’t” / “I hurt my foot”- “It looks fine to me”. When the child tried to reassert the problem it became a conflict that ended with the child in tears. This is the classic double-bind situation that Gregory Bateson and others have written about as part of a family pattern that leads to mental disorders. You have a perception. You are told you can’t trust that perception and that you must agree that something you know is not true is true. American parents have been conditioned by the culture around them and the model of how they were raised. Those that become aware of these imprints can make a choice and see that it might have been far easier to look at the hurt, then give the child a hug and words of sympathy. Every problem doesn’t need professional intervention.
To be the responsible person in charge is not the same as being the boss. Setting an example and meeting needs arising from the individual child’s development assists growth by creating direction and self-reliance. Do we really want to condition young minds that obedience and conformity are the highest good? In a culture of criticism we grow up criticizing others and tend to be hardest on ourselves. Self-acceptance can be hard to achieve.
We need to have more faith in the intelligence and astuteness of children, give them more help and less direction. Consider the narrowness of the ideals we’re being sold and loosen up about the relevance of the Standard, giving full attention to the particular rose in our care. The admiration and appreciation of parents and other adults for the child has a far more lasting effect on self-esteem than trying to teach them they’re okay in middle school once they’ve already learned to distrust their own perceptions. Believing you are appreciated creates an attitude that wants to participate, to contribute to others that which is appreciated, and have a role and connection to the world.

Monday, July 27, 2009



Every place is an armature for thoughts that fit that setting.
The longer I spent in the chateau’s topiary garden the more I understood of what attracted me and the lessons keep unfolding. Initially, the metaphor of cultivation seemed like fertile ground for ideas I hadn’t thought yet. This was particularly true in the context of a country like France where the emergence of culture is visible from prehistory to the present, where I found the aesthetic values, pervasive in every aspect of life, so affirming. Feeling the presence of high culture with the experience of being around the castle for a month, pushed my thoughts toward the manners of society and the customs of the highest strata. The refinements and specificity, the attention to behavioral form that shows that you belong to a particular culture are part of the education of the individual, determined by the social group. Transmission of attitudes and values occurs on many levels often below conscious awareness. We can feel what our group wants from us even when it’s not stated outright.
From there I began to reflect on nature and nurture, how the personal mode of behavior is sculpted by others, dependent on others’ attention, the value as far as the shapers are concerned is determined by keeping to that shape. The bushes are genetically the same, but the shape they take has been determined by the cultivator. Upbringing and environment seemed far more important than the basic genetic code. Epigenetics has shown how environmental factors can turn gene’s propensities on and off. The sophisticated elaboration of an individual style of being depends on so many overlapping factors that feed personal development.
Being in the garden made me feel like part of a thing of beauty. The bushes were healthy, gently tended. Tended for order and harmony that I got pulled into. I look back at body aches and pains that seemed to disappear and see that the garden had become my Temple Beautiful. Day after day, its carefully arranged tableaux healed the chinks I’d contracted into from day to day life in the outside world. It was a place of escape and recuperation.
In the last week, I began to include my presence in the garden. After all, I was choosing the angle and what to include, it was me studying this place, this phenomenon which made me a significant factor in its presence. I used to hate it when friends would debate whether a tree falling in the forest made any sound. Thinking back, I suppose what I was reacting to was the debating of it and not the question itself, which like the sound of one hand clapping point to the treachery of verbal statements as well as the importance of the observer to the observed. “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”
Including myself felt closer to some aspect of truth. This is the same reason literature seems more true than psychology. It seems more honest, allows the logic of the universe in a single individual to shine with the unique perspective offered to the field of knowledge. Including myself in the garden finally linked what I’d been doing at the chateau and what my work has always been about – what the interior drama feels like. Images can contain more than the outer surface. The topiary garden was big enough, in reality and metaphor, that it filled my vision in all directions, giving me access options from outside to deep within. Though fully escaped from outer reality, the sculpted trees and bushes can have flexible roles in a society of their own, a life sized gameboard for imagination to play on. It was a fantasy space, patterned on the sense of magic in the creator and I felt myself admiring the many creators, the artisan(s) that made the large urns placed thoughtfully, alone and in social groupings, the sculptor of the trees, the designer of the garden, the tender of the roses, even the placement on the hill. It’s not a big step from those kinds of thoughts to an Aesthetic Consciousness that is transpersonal. When I started to include myself, I still felt strongly that I was resonating with an awareness that tuned through my placement in being to mirror the perceptions and understandings available through my lens of experience. The emanations I used to represent me were clearly reflecting from beyond me. Drawing is a way to see something, to represent a significant relationship that is unclear until the right structure is found to understand it. Going back and finishing the drawings begun in the garden, they keep teaching me, pointing out aspects of a growing mystery and a lasting appreciation.

Saturday, July 25, 2009



When I found out about getting the Artists’ Residency at Rocheforte-en-Terre in Brittany, France, the initial sensation was something like terror. The prospect of a month in an unknown place made all the day-to-day patterns of my life wrap around me with barbed tentacles that would sting me if I moved. I liked my days and I was giving them up for days I knew nothing about. I also knew it was time to do this, for exactly the same reasons, to stir up those patterns with an entirely new experience. I directed the fear into excitement, a similar adrenalized state that reframed the apprehension.
A profound change of surroundings obliterates the thoughts that go with familiar places. This includes attitudes toward time. The novelty of a new place stimulates the dopamine circuits producing an alert focus on the present. The mind is scrubbed clean by the constant stimulus of entirely new ways of being. Separated from the time triggers of my life in Baltimore helped me settle into an ongoing unfolding moment. The perception of time as a commodity that can be spent faded into the more fluid learning experience of the whole. Immersion in work has always been my purest experience of focus in the here and now. Surrounded by difference, everything was in focus; the creeping invisibility that erases the familiar never had time to set in. Almost everything I did felt like a peak experience. Appreciation and gratitude were constant companions.
Having always focused my work on making the intangible visible, the concreteness of the material surroundings was a particular challenge after a career of imagery drawn from skies and other chaotic systems. What is solid would seem more inert, unchanging as it persists in time. I quickly realized that objects have spheres of influence not defined by their outer boundaries, and that outer influences extend their effects to whatever responds to that frequency. Topiary trees were an especially provocative meeting of matter and mind. I ended up spending most of my time in the garden.
I got back from France feeling very laid back, with none of the pressures of time I generally experience. This ease was immediately threatened by the demands made by the familiar. Routines begin with settings, so being back in the same settings triggered a range of automatic behavior programs. The conditioned pattern of going right out to walk after lunch, then meditating, then into the studio, is a pattern I value, it’s what assures that I’ll get something done. Not going through with the expected pattern creates tension. The prompt goes unanswered. This time, I leave it that way, live with the tension. I can see how confining those routines can be and that stirring them up a bit could actually reduce my tension about time, created by routines trying to complete themselves.
Like so many contemporary living spaces, my studio is a nest of portals into virtual places. Our objects function like locales with a vocabulary that builds on the metaphors of sites and schedules within a realm of information. Every object/place has it’s own triggers for attitudes toward time. Modern culture has so many prompts flashing, insisting on the pattern of behavior they represent. Every object is a world that wants something from us, has ways to use our time and attention. My time in France helps me pull back and choose the worlds that matter, to reprogram my habits and allow more space for growth.
The presence of that experience in memory adds to my store of gratitude, for Christopher and Jane Shipley, who worked so successfully to make it a rewarding experience, for my fellow residents, Betsy Boyd, Beth Shipley and Amy Metier, who enlarged my experience with their personal sensibilities, what they distilled from what they saw increased my ability to see where I was, and to the people of Rocheforte-en-Terre who welcomed us and helped us feel like a part of the life of the town and offered a deeper understanding of life in France. I‘m grateful for France itself, the value of beauty and regard for the past. Immersion in a vast historical time defuses the ticking clock of contemporary time. The futility of counting the grains of sand on the beach frees me to be on the beach and appreciate each extended moment in its full duration.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Reflecting Dimensions

Imagery and Religion

When asked if he believed in God a famous scientist once answered, “No, what I believe in is much bigger than that. “ Religion depends on imagery. Many of the people who are rejecting the historic religions find the imagery no longer works for them. The image of an all-knowing father in the sky isn’t comprehensive enough for the scale of the world we know. Even understanding it as imagery, a way of conceptualizing something beyond our understanding, it puts the focus on who is in charge, which may benefit authority figures, but not our spiritual understanding. The archetype of the father is all about obedience and punishment. After centuries of people who were in charge and not necessarily wise and fair leaders, the image is tainted. Anyone with power or who insists they are led by a higher power can be harsh and brutal stamping out the sins of others and the world is divided into the obedient good and disobedient bad. The image creates fear and disconnection.
Many are searching for better images to represent a spiritual cosmic order, images that will harmonize with a modern understanding. Immersed in patterns too elegant for chance, and visions of wonderment anywhere you look close enough, it doesn’t make sense to call it all lifeless mechanism just because the old imagery isn’t working. The sense of being part of a larger pattern, connected to the universe, inspires love instead of fear. Grateful to be opened out of our isolation, we can reach for new ways of visualizing cosmic relationships. Finding more ways to contemplate what’s beyond understanding acknowledges the mystery, doesn’t try to solve it.
The Net of Indra is a wonderful image from Buddhism for the cosmic order visualized as an infinite net of jewels, each reflecting the whole and every part. If everything reflects everything else, then when one thing moves it moves everywhere simultaneously. This offers an interesting way of looking at a larger consciousness that is aware of us. It could be isomorphic with the concept of non-locality in quantum physics that points to correlated particles remaining correlated even with separation of great distances. If one particle changes orientation so does the other. No transmission is necessary since it happens at the same time, much like our reflection in the mirror moves when we do.
Every jewel in the net reflects everything else. This image also connects to Karl Pribram’s description of the mind as like a hologram, where the whole image is in every part of the holographic plate. Our memories and experienced reality are distributed throughout. And maybe our personal experiences are distributed throughout a larger consciousness. We offer the only information available about our space/time location. Each different position in the net is a unique reflection, a personal view of the whole like a different camera angle on the scene.
The structure of our mind reflects the structure of the larger mind of which we’re a part. This image helps us envision how the universal consciousness is aware of each and all. It establishes us as integral to the structure, everything we do having an effect on every part of the web. When someone is closer in the net we reflect more of each other on a larger part of our adjacent surfaces, and the relationship itself becomes part of the picture throughout. The sense that at some level we are all one is easier to see and understand with this image of ourselves as jewels on the net containing within us all that is, ourselves contained in every part. Thinking about ourselves as connected in this way can transform the way we act toward each other. As part of an organic whole, to not help another person in need would seem as irrational as an immune cell sensing a problem and not acting in response. To recognize our actions as far-reaching and contained in the content of the whole may tune our sense of responsibility to one another.
Looking for images that connect us is searching for more encompassing meanings, and is a spiritual act in itself. Not clinging to any one image allows us to flow and respond to different aspects of a spiritual reality as they apply to the human experience we’re having while continuing to search and learn. Let’s begin to share new images for a deeper idea of what is to be human and how we fit into the universe.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Telling Stories

Alan Watts often said that what people are looking for in Eastern spiritual practice was a transformation in how they see themselves and in their feeling about who they are. He and Krishnamurti as well as some of today’s neuroscientists see our use of language creating a filter that interferes with personal evolution.
The use of language binds us to time. It takes time to express a thought, time to read a book, time to think through an argument on an issue. Our sense of our self is a story in time with a sequence of ‘before’s and ‘after’s . We believe we have a beginning at birth and an ending at death and we narrate much of the time in between.
Description puts passing events into a culture-based code. Judgments arising from cultural norms attach themselves to the narration. The usefulness of the code, enabling us to remember and to plan, seduces us into accepting it as reality. The story includes felt grievances and worries, which torment us with remorse and disappointment. Many live most of their lives in the descriptions. When our story dominates, the living present, recedes into the background. At its most controlling, the narration takes the place of reality and we treat our concepts as unchangeable absolutes that twist relations with immediate experience. When we feel oppressed by time we need to remember that the oppression is a concept in our mind. It is part of the story we tell and locks us more deeply into our description of what’s happening than in the actual moment we could be living. Self-consciousness builds with attachment to our ideal protagonist as we measure ourselves against it.
Involvement in actual experience doesn’t require a self. This is why books like “The Power of Now” are popular, because whatever is going on in the story, focus on the immediate experience has duration, an extended moment, released from time and self-consciousness. We feel relief to be freed from the cage of identity we’ve created. Animals, having no means to narrate, live in the now. The present is timeless whenever we’re in it. This is the view of mystical religions of all kinds; incarnation of the divine is in the full attention to existence free of conditioned concepts. Moksha, liberation from the socially defined view of the world, getting away from what the community says one should think and feel, must be found for oneself. It can’t be codified because it is a direct encounter with the world.
Our story is a type of self-conditioning. It includes the values of the group in which we were raised, our sense of other people’s expectations of us, and our feelings about them, where we think we’re heading, and where we’ve been. It locks us in time. Thinking about our story stimulates the emotions, even intensifying them with the judgments we’ve made on the events remembered. Pains of the past are re-experienced, desires for the future re-ignited. Yet it’s not that easy to let go. We may not realize that one reason we stay in the story is because we’re attached to it. Like a work of art, it is our own creation, so a certain amount of pride in accomplishment might be operating below the surface. We think of it as who we are and would rather not give it up, even if it makes us suffer. A program on Radio Lab referred to the story AS the self. Without the verbal narrating, the ego-self disappears.
But conscious awareness does not. Neuroscientist, Jill Bolte Taylor notes that narration is a left hemisphere phenomenon. When she had a stroke and the left hemisphere stopped functioning she gained access to a consciousness not contained by the story, absolutely in the here and now, and her whole sense of an individual self disappeared. She said her awareness felt bigger than her personal brain could hold.
Without the filter of the story, images and sensations flood in, and life is richer than we realize. Cultivating our visual sense is one way of loosening the hold of the autobiographical fiction we tell about ourselves. Words break things into objects and symbols, whereas images show information in terms of processes and relationships- many variables interwoven. The more that’s included the better the picture. We understand where we are in the scene and the relationships entwined with our presence. It’s a conscious cognition that apprehends meaningful connections. Investigation fills out and broadens the picture. Making decisions based on a having a bigger picture is wiser than simply having the facts and opinions. As recent research has shown, we make better decisions by intuition than by thinking and analyzing facts. In one of my favorite metaphors for intuition, John Pfeiffer (“The Human Brain”, 1955) wrote, “Intuition is like the behavior of a compass needle which, immersed in a vast and intricate magnetic field of unknown origin, simply points. “ Intuition is the guidance of visual consciousness. Your eyes tell you where to go. Look more deeply into where they linger and let the story fall away.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Enlarging Views


I laughed out loud when I read that the pleasure chemicals of the brain were stimulated by rejecting information that didn’t fit one’s worldview. We protect our image of how it all works, like the cell membrane protects the cell. Invasions of non-self are attacked as enemies and we feel pleasure in the act of defense, protecting the boundary to keep the inner world stable. But like other aspects of the brain that are pliable, we could probably learn to use other views to extend our own and gain a better understanding of the world. Knowledge about the mind shows us it’s potential to evolve. Just like over time, we try new foods and enrich the scope of tastes we appreciate, it’s time to develop a taste for ideas and perspectives that will expand our way of seeing. Nobel laureate, Ilya Prigogine wrote, ”Reality is a construction in which we actively participate.” He pointed out that when the complexity of information grows too great for the existing way of organizing it to manage, a living system will reorganize to accommodate it, or fall apart. We have to enlarge our construction with better organizing images if we’re to cope with the complexity of our world.
We need better images for differences than duality. What breaks the spectrum of life into poles, republican/democrat, right/wrong, authorized/unauthorized, black/white, don’t account for the multiplicity and richness of the human species. Maybe we might try thinking of different perspectives as views of a landscape. The canyon is not opposed to the meadow. They are two realities of the whole, full of endless variations. Definitions of intelligence include being able to hold more in the mind at once, tolerance for contradiction and ambiguity, involvement and curiosity about what’s unfamiliar. All of these qualities can be cultivated.
Curiosity is damped by fear, something that begins to show even in young children. In strange situations they cling to their mothers, burying their heads in her body. With enough fear inside already, it’s hard to take in more stimuli. We protect the membrane enclosing the known. In fear, adults cling to a static view that won’t allow anything to disrupt a hard-to-maintain inner equilibrium. Boundaries are automatically defended until the defense and the fear behind it are recognized. As Frederick Perls used to say, “Before a thing can change it must become what it is.” Understanding what resistance to change means about our own inner dynamic is the first condition to opening our minds to the new.
The model of thinking based on dividing the flow of existence into categories ultimately allows the definition of the category to take the place of the complex interacting system that any individual really is. It creates mental walls. Once we’ve labeled something, our previous judgments about what we’ve labeled rush in and cloud our perception. Ideologies are mental cages. We can rattle the bars, hooting and screeching, and still stay safe inside. The educational system puts too much attention on being right, instead of the art of acquiring and organizing new information.
Every life story shows the evolution of a point of view that has it’s own context of relevance and offers important knowledge about the big picture. Think of knowledge as rhizomatic rather than a dualistic. Each node is hub to many outgrowths connecting in multiple directions. It expands and grows in power and knowledge as more perspectives are accumulated, rather than making judgments about ideas and dismissing the ones that threaten a fortified worldview. If we don’t cling to one version of reality as truth, but entertain a viewpoint as a flexible hypothesis, we can more readily absorb what contradicts it and our perspective grows.
We are part of the intricate organism of life, connected to other humans like neurons in the brain, supported by the other processes in the cosmos like the systems of the body. When we use labels and definitions to separate, we are ourselves separated. If we can deflect our tendency to judge and categorize, then we can really see, and observation builds real knowledge. The attitude toward difference can be one of discovery, happening upon an unknown part of the landscape that changes our inner map and values the new for the benefits it brings.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Converging Views

Art Talks

If you want to have a really interesting conversation, start with a painting and watch what unfolds. Forget about any preconceived ideas of what talking about art should be and simply follow what attracts you and what kind of ideas, feelings and memories arise.
I remember reading about a meditation instructor that counseled never to look in the direction of a noise because every new thing to intrude on vision would start a train of associations. Imagine how much more material is stirred when the thing we see reveals deep perceptions about what it feels like to be human.
Before the first discussion of out-of-class work each semester I quote Thomas Carlyle,
“The chief value of a book is that it stimulates the reader to self-activity” and note that the same is true of art. Picasso said, “when a painting is finished it’s dead for the artist but lives on in the mind of the viewer.”
How my images live on and what they evoke in others is the information I most want to hear. In any discussion where the artists are present, information about what viewers see reveals the implications of the artist’s choices, and is more illuminating than having it evaluated by standards the artist may not share. Discussions about art enable each individual to experience their own sensibilities through what is triggered by the image and the varied thoughts of others. The I Ching emphasizes the importance of sharing varied opinions saying, ”Knowledge should be a refreshing and vitalizing force. It becomes so only through …discussion [with others]. In this way learning becomes many-sided and takes on a cheerful lightness, whereas there’s always something ponderous and one-sided about the learning of the self-taught.”
This is the wonderful thing about a studio class. Artists are independent thinkers. The variety of ways of seeing enrich the group as a whole. Every association reflects the range of meanings the work can evoke. It’s important to draw out the contrasting views so the artist has an accurate picture of the full scope of connections the image can engage. As the current class disperses, a particular kind of discussion, grown of the individual worldviews of this group of students, this class-mind, disappears as well, but the range of outlooks and enlarged perspective created by the group remains in each individual. Every different group brings out new ideas and enhances flexible thinking.
What is most important about talking about art is that everyone should do it.
Building on the work of Rudolf Arnheim, Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine developed an educational system called “Visual Thinking Strategies” backed by experimental work showing that the thinking skills of schoolchildren can be improved in other subjects by talking about art, describing what they think about when they look at a painting or photograph and why. They see improvement not only in observational skills but reasoning skills. Building neural connections between the feeling and thinking parts of the brain unifies felt assessments of significance with generation of ideas that relate to the image, fostering self-awareness and liberating thinking from a need to be right. Without the contest for rightness, our views are expanded by the range of other opinions. Where there are no wrong answers, creative thinking flourishes. In an article in “Family Medicine”, (April 2005,) Reilly, Ring and Duke recommend “communal viewing of artistic paintings as a modality to increase sensitivity, team-building and collaboration amongst medical trainees” additionally citing a study where it improved medical diagnostic skills. Moving beyond “the realm of right answers” led to more meaningful discussion and more thoughtful reflection.
Having more art around opens opportunities for people to engage in discussion that would have a beneficial effect on their minds and their understanding of others. It pushes conversation beyond the trivial and superficial to the big themes of life. It offers opportunities for creative imagination inviting viewers to make up their own stories about what is going on in the painting. The studies showing the value of discussing art for all kinds of thinking emphasize the enjoyment that participants feel in such a liberatory mode. It enables us to be stimulated by differences rather than threatened. Regular art talks with friends, colleagues and community groups could educate neglected aspects of our intelligence, tuning our sensitivity to each other and the deeper meanings revealed by vision.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Short Sight


“In front of most scenes and our experience of them, light is divided into spatial zones of sureness and doubt. Vision advances from light to light, like a figure walking on stepping stones.” John Berger
What’s in the dark is unknown, unseen, and we tend to avoid it. We don’t know what to expect, where the dangers lurk, and feel safer in the light. We could think of light as a metaphor for consciousness itself. We shine our light where we direct conscious attention. Where we don’t look stays in shadow. One of the most powerful images in psychoanalysis is the image of the shadow, referring to parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see, pain and fear we don’t acknowledge. Jung used the shadow as an image for the repressed contents of the psyche, what we find unacceptable about ourselves or in our memories that is kept from the light of consciousness, but still operates unconsciously, invisible to waking life unless conscious efforts are made to retrieve them. Leaving them in darkness allows them to influence behavior and use up psychic energy repeating old patterns and keeping the banished elements out of awareness. The psychological terms externalization and displacement refer how we try to deflect the shadow elements by attaching them to outside patterns that bear shared features. An unresolved issue from the past, hidden in the shadows, will find ways to resurface, triggered by an even minor correspondence to the original pattern but carrying all the emotional baggage of the original pattern. Recognizing the pattern frees the mind from underlying conflict. When I realized that the majority of arguments I had with my husband for the first ten years of our marriage were really arguments with my father, they stopped. He would trigger one aspect of an old theme and I would jump on it as though the rest of the pattern were true. When I finally saw that my husband didn’t share the attitudes and positions of my father and that I was using him to fight old battles, I became aware of an unconscious issue that was getting in my way. Once conscious, the pattern became knowledge.
Projection calls out feelings and traits of our own in other people- positive and negative- and can be seen on a conscious level as the mind trying to recognize itself. This makes it a tool for personal insight. If you look at the things you criticize and admire in others as reflecting yourself, you gain the kind of self-understanding that can help you utilize your full being.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer did a fascinating study that showed that one reason people can’t change things about themselves they didn’t like was because the trait had a flip side they valued. The shy quality is also a reflective quality that takes in more of a situation than a more quickly reactive person. A person with a bad temper has a passionate nature that if not displaced or misdirected can be tapped for personal accomplishment. What could be thought of as stubborn on one side could be sticking to principles on the other. This is not an argument for the negative excesses of a trait but for recognition of its full scope so it can be integrated and utilized rather than fought. If all of the elements in the shadow can be woven into our personality, we extend our depth and understanding.
The cultural predisposition to criticism and denunciation creates barriers to accepting
patterns from the shadow that would enhance our self-awareness and understanding of others. If we view what we criticize and denounce, what we fight or lash out at, as valuable information from our shadow, we free psychic energy to use the capacities they were holding back. As Daniel Goleman writes in his book “Emotional Intelligence”, “emotional aptitude is a meta-ability determining how well we can use whatever other skills we have.” Every emotional block that keeps part of our being in darkness interferes with the clarity of our intelligence. Our shadow contains information that when brought into the light enlarges our picture of ourselves and our world.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Still Movement

Art for Healing

In ancient Egypt the Temple Beautiful was the center of healing. It was a place that used all of the arts to restore balance in the sick. There was an instinctive understanding that music, beautiful objects, incense, massage, graceful movement, as expressions of balance, order and harmony, could entrain the body and pull together disordered energies.
For centuries of recent history we’ve treated the body and mind as entirely separate domains. The title of Antonio Damasio’s book “Descartes Error” sums up what he and other neuroscientists were finding. Feeling, the response of the body toward balance, directs conscious attention and motivates thinking. Groundbreaking scientist Candace Pert uses the term bodymind to emphasize that our whole being is the mind, far more interlaced than we’d ever realized. Understanding the depth of that interconnection, it’s not so hard to understand how emotions can affect health. In the research, it was less an issue of what emotions were present, but more a case of awareness of them. Dr. Herbert Benson in his book “Timeless Healing” emphasizes that attitude toward one’s situation is central to healing.
Unrecognized emotions are more apt to pathologize, to express their presence physically as some type of illness, as if the bodymind can’t get our attention any other way. Since as Susanne Langer says, ”Art looks like feelings feel,” finding the art that corresponds to an inner state is a way to recognize them. When we respond to art of any kind it’s because it resonates with personal themes alive in us at the time. We’re drawn to what reveals our heart. Art serves to help us see feelings that the stresses of day-to-day life obscure. Understanding internal patterns can help us discover fears and contradictions that may be interfering with the best use of the flow of our lives. Where there’s a disintegration of order in the bodymind, beautiful art, which exemplifies order, can help reintegrate.
The I Ching notes “Music has the power to loosen the grip of the obscure emotions.” Not only loosening and clarifying, modern studies have shown that listening to favorite music stimulates production of endorphins, which moderate pain and reward helpful behavior with pleasure. Science is beginning to support the efficacy of art for healing.
Just like the travel to beautiful locations has healing benefits, even time with an art book can stimulate endorphins and reroute our attention to whatever will help us grow. With so many ways to access images, through search engines and websites, all people can find the kind of art that reflects them and through it see the deeper levels of self, which go beyond surface differences. This connection may be the most healing element of all.
Social isolation has been determined to be a serious risk factor in health. Whatever creates a sense of connection to the human community can offer some relief. When an artist expresses a feeling that has deep resonance with a personal emotion the viewer has a sense of being understood, that someone else in another space and time has felt this way, shared this state of being. Reconnecting to the cosmos through the universal language of art pulls us back into the whole from which we mistakenly felt separate.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Nourishing Potential

Visibility and Attention

When I speak of visibility, I’m referring not to what’s visible to us, but how visible we are to others. To feel another’s attention is almost like being touched. If it’s positive attention, accepting and encouraging, it’s like being stroked. If it’s negative, critical and rejecting, it feels like we’re being hit. This isn’t just metaphor. If someone looks at us with contempt, it makes our heart race. We respond physically to how others react to our presence. The chemicals and muscle tension register whether we choose to consciously acknowledge it or not.
Psychologist Nathanial Branden feels that our most important social need is for visibility. We need to feel seen and responded to by others. It’s an affirmation that we exist. When we feel we are seen we feel connected to the world, when we feel we aren’t we're isolated. When people are listening in conversation it feels good, if they aren’t it’s frustrating. When a parent turns away from a child, the child feels unworthy of attention. The state of invisibility leads to whatever actions have been known to get attention in the past.
A few years ago, I was surprised to discover that every student in this very smart class of illusionism students had been diagnosed with attention problems. It bothered me that such an interesting and varied group of intelligent minds had been identified as defective. My concern grew when during the hardest assignment I gave that semester, the room was as quiet as a library, everyone thoroughly concentrated, and their attention held the whole evening. Throughout the semester the harder the assignment, the more complete their attention. This started me wondering how much of what we’re terming a defect might be boredom reflecting capacities we don’t consider in our model of education. Given the complex stimulation of the modern world from the beginning of life, these students may have developed intelligence that the 20th century educational model fails to take into account. What doesn’t fit the old model is diagnosed as a condition to be fought instead of a new capacity to nourish. The current methods of evaluation try to fit complex individuals into narrow slots thought up by someone who probably has an entirely different life experience. To succeed the student may have to override what they feel is interesting and important to adopt a standard that may not have any usefulness in their world. The way we approach standards today has too much to do with power. It serves to filter out all but those who match the values of those who set the standards. It puts people with different kinds of excellence at a disadvantage. Limited models of reality cloak the range of human perspectives. Everything else is invisible. Beyond the knowledge we fail to take into account is the disrespect implied by not seeing other points-of-view.
With loving, respectful attention people can grow and develop their particular capacities. Studies of motivation in ‘91 (Caine &Caine) have shown the superiority of internal motivators to external- whether punishment or reward. We have much better results when we feel we’ve chosen our own goals. They write, “…internal motivation becomes difficult to generate as people begin to see themselves as fulfilling only goals formed by others.” All researchers come to same conclusion- we need to abandon the “paradigm of behavioral contingency”. Neither carrots nor sticks got the best results.
Education needs to develop ways to see the individual and offer means for each to pursue projects that match and further their interests. To pay attention and offer the support we see as necessary, the student becomes more engaged, more visible, without being controlled.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Centering Change


One of the first things that attracted me to the “I Ching” was the assumption that everyone knows right from wrong. It always counsels us to be “firm and correct”, never explaining what that is. The ancient Taoist belief was that if you wrote it down, spelled it out, people would figure out how to get around it, whereas if you looked at a world of constantly changing relationships, fairness and the right course of action could be judged individually. Every situation is different.
Erich Fromm distinguished two different types of ethics, referring to them as humanitarian and authoritarian. The attitude of the “I Ching” aligns well with the humanitarian mode which is golden rule based. We know what right is by what we do or do not want to be done to us. The study of mirror neurons gives that idea a concrete basis. What we see enacted, we feel inside through neuronal mimicry. This is working in all but the rare individuals psychiatry used to call sociopaths, who could hurt others without conscience because they were so disconnected from their own feelings that they could feel no sympathy for others. This would suggest that we can become more conscientious in our relations to others if we understand our own feelings better. Seek out the imagery that stirs our deepest places and reflect on what that shows. Pay attention when actions are out of proportion to the situation and search out the older pattern that was triggered.
Authoritarian ethics holds up obedience as the primary good and disobedience as the central evil. Yet people have done some terrible things while under orders. Obedience delivers us from the responsibility to understand right and wrong for ourselves. This is likely why Krishnamurti felt that all authority is an obstacle.
Goodness has nothing to do with the law. My efforts not to hurt others have nothing to do with being afraid of punishment. A picture of a young swimming star smoking pot at a party is only an issue because we treat obedience as more important than virtue. The fact that Michael Phelps is a role model has nothing to do with external obedience to authority. He’s an example to others because of his inner discipline and determination, his humility and genuineness, qualities anyone would do well to emulate. At the other end of the scale, we have authority’s representatives aiming all of their attention at the disobedience itself, since for them that is the more serious threat to cultural willingness to obey at all costs.
The laws most often invoked to bring someone down are laws about lying, where a person’s human instinct for self-protection is brought into conflict with authority’s insistence on truth or penalty. The original offense may not seem that serious, but the disobedience involved in lying for self-protection can be inflated endlessly as disrespect for the “rule of law”. Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about an affair, not for the affair itself. Long before humans evolved, creatures were using deception to protect themselves. Peter Breggin wrote that when children lie, it’s because they feel unfairly coerced. The same strategies are carried into adulthood.
The focus on the law is eroding our goodness, our ability to practice virtue because it develops the connections between us, because we choose to, because it enlarges us and helps us grow as human beings. Being good makes us feel good, not because it builds self -esteem but because in the act, we’re not thinking of ourselves at all but reaching out and participating in a bigger picture in which we are included. As social beings our reward system supports helping each other. It comes naturally. Led by our sense of beauty, we act in harmony with our situation and take pleasure in kindness.
Thich Nhat Hnan said smiling is mouth yoga. It stimulates good brain chemistry in ourselves and in everyone we smile at, lighting up their mirror neurons. It’s an easy way to spread goodness, positive brain chemistry and reinforce the goodwill within us.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


The Sense of Beauty

In her book “Neurophilosophy”, Patricia Churchland points out that our idea of five senses leaves out many very particular sensitivities, like our sense of position and awareness of interior states. I would like to suggest that beauty itself is a sense, attuned to proportion, harmony of form, and order. Like the other senses, it is a response to these qualities and not an idea about them.
The sense of beauty offers guidance. Science uses the concept of elegance as indicative of a good theory and many scientists and mathematicians refer to their sense of beauty as leading them to the answers they sought. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Blink” described the ability to discern significance as an aesthetic sense. The expert knew the statue was fraudulent because she could feel something missing. Her body of knowledge and increased sensitivity to her subject enabled her to quickly see “what’s wrong with this picture.”
Beauty is not an external thing, but part of our deepest understanding. External perceptions of beauty are triggered by what enlivens the inner sense.
We are what we give our attention to and recognize ourselves in our response to what we admire. The concept of projection is true for positives as well as negatives. Just like we recognize our own negative qualities in the world and tend to call out others for faults we also possess, we recognize our best selves in the things we value. In an experiment that asked people in an office to pick the best worker and say why, most people chose the same person but the traits they listed reflected their own best qualities. What we admire activates corresponding patterns in our mind and strengthens them. We get pleasure from the experience because it aids our growth.
When a beautiful work of art offers an insight into a feeling or paradox it can change our way of seeing. It is this power that Dave Hickey emphasizes in his book, “The Invisible Dragon”, writing, “Beauty…provided the image’s single claim to being looked at and to being believed”. Beauty has authority because it gets attention. If it’s more beautiful it keeps attention. Like plants have a tropism toward the sun, we have a tropism toward beauty.
Elaine Scarry, in her book, “On Beauty and Being Just”, writes that beauty “adrenalizes”. It stimulates the mind and draws it into contact with the place where beauty is discovered. She notes that beauty has no precedent. It is not something you can pin down, but is particular, yet you know it when you see it. The mirroring part of your brain brings the beauty inside. When we admire beauty we participate in it. It is the beautiful part of us that understands it. If the quality wasn’t in us we wouldn’t respond, couldn’t recognize it. This is true of human behavior as well as art. Attending a meeting of high school students taking a stand against violence, my admiration for their efforts reinforces the parts of me that know that caring and striving for a more just world connects us and is deeply beautiful. As Michael Samuels writes, in “Healing With the Mind’s Eye”, “Beauty is a force that links.”
Because of this capacity to connect, beauty is spiritually fortifying. I think of spirituality as what connects us to what’s beyond ourselves, criminality as what disconnects us. Being drawn to a work of art is a connection to the artist. The heart says, “yes” to a feeling recognized but perhaps never expressed before. We respond to what aligns with our own inner model.
Art educates our understanding of feeling. When we resonate with something it is because it’s already a part of us. We recognize and admire the qualities that we ourselves possess and strengthen them as we find them externally. Psychiatrist Alfred Adler said “Art may be esteemed the highest training for social life, inculcating into us attitudes of value and thus improving the nature of our responses.” Likewise, philosopher Susanne Langer felt that having beautiful objects around was essential to educating a child’s sense of proportion and quality.
Beauty nourishes our better selves, and because we love what is beautiful, beauty stimulates our ability to love.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Heart/Mind Generator

New Mind

When I wrote the May post, “Mental Organism”, I was visualizing my “Imaging Ideas” class as something like a soliton, an area of multiple, flowing motions organized into one form that maintains its shape. The eye of Jupiter is the best example, all swirling gases, maintaining a spiral form, an open system, always new, as the visible aspect flows through the organizing form. Hurricanes are such distinct dynamic forms that we give them names.
At the constructive end of the soliton spectrum are human groups organized around a purpose. Like currents in a stream pulled into a specific shape by the size and position of stones at the bottom, the beauty of the emerging form reflects the variety of sensibilities in the group. Every class has its own character, and my previous essay reflected on the dissolving of that unique group mind. Now my thoughts are turning on the emergence of a new class as its own mental form, multiple individual currents, pulled together and held in place for the lifetime of the semester by the external structure of the class, sharing different ways of seeing around the themes of the session.
Every new perspective enlarges my own, both in the physical structure of my brain and in my response to future events. Growth stimulates the reward system and the soliton of a class is new at every meeting, as people’s moods and recent interactions reflect the life experience flowing through each personal mind and into our group mind. It shimmers with the variety of lives reflected and propels my mind in new directions. I would never think some of the thoughts I get to think were it not for the stimulus of an unexpected observation from someone else.
Entirely focused on the unfolding dynamics of various situations and the best way to handle them, the I Ching uses visual images from the natural world to reflect the patterns of being. “Progress like a hamster”, not a good outlook, refers to the fear-led accumulations of hoarded stuff we can build like a dead shell around us. Shifting attention to the flow of life, rather than the symbols of life, is endlessly varied and fascinating. The pleasure of being part of the new class soliton is having so much new stimulation concentrated in one form, every individual a cosmos of their own.
Chaos theory observes that the same forms repeat at various scales. Thinking about all the different ways we participate in mental solitons within ourselves and in groups offers a different kind of image to consider our physical selves and particular lives as simply an external condition through which consciousness flows. This image helps me break free of the cultural idea of a person as an “isolated consciousness in a bag of skin” as Alan Watts put it. As a highly complex soliton, participating in other solitons, each situation gives rise to its own kinds of thoughts which require more minds than my own. I am actively connected to multiple unfolding processes, which then ripple on into situations I may never be aware of. A new class is a microcosm of how, through our interconnected thinking and doing, we participate in the growth of the universe.

Sunday, January 11, 2009