Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Cosmic Well

Shifting Images

    If we thought of ourselves as significant parts of a larger whole, why would we chew on our own foot? The current widespread inability to care about other people and the planet is because they are seen as outside and other. Unacknowledged fears and dissatisfactions attach to the outside other creating the illusion we know where the danger is. The devouring of the weak by the strong is the animal tendency that the first law in human history, the Code of Hammurabi, was written to prevent. A righteous society kept the strong from harming the weak. This was seen as the step needed to transcend our animal nature. As Eldridge Cleaver wrote, “Survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle. Cooperation is the law of civilization.”
     In a specific section “the Code” recognized and penalized unproven slander, that human tendency to call out those faults they themselves possess. I’ve come across this observation in Marcus Aurelius, Marcel Proust and Willa Cather and psychology. Look at current public figures for plenty of examples.
      A precept found in all religions says treat people the way you would like to be treated. I think of it as the law of the mirror neurons, empathy cells, they are sometimes called. We understand what hurts others through our own feelings so damaging others requires ignorance of personal feelings. Prejudice and antagonism can’t be solved with a surface veneer of proper behavior. It requires psychological self-awareness, seeing the things we fault in others as the things within ourselves we need to recognize and master.
     Spending time every week working with the I Ching is my tool for self-development. Its good advice on how to be a “superior person”  is entirely dependent on the qualities in yourself you cultivate, where you give time and attention. This is actually strengthening those qualities in the circuits of the brain so it becomes second nature. To build on your own best qualities creates the self-respect necessary to respect others.
     Respect for every individual creates harmony. Dividing things into categories divides us into groups that emphasize the differences. Labels deplete meaning and sever connections between people. When we call courtesy “Political Correctness”, it turns the virtue into something scorned. With categories, you get sorting and ranking, preferred and privileged, and the association with labels and brands that keep attention on the surface.

    Images communicate through commonality, the way we all respond to what we see. The meaning depends on the whole context and each person gets their version of the same essence, the different details of life unified by the shared patterns of experience. Artists can provide unifying images that offer a visual truth about our connectedness. Though we may be an individual nest of skin containing organs, we are nested in a family, in a community, in a region all the way out to our shared planetary nest which contains us all. We are responsible for the condition of our nest, and with the right images we can change the way we see.

Monday, August 28, 2017


Where is the Well

    Labels are proliferating regarding what people call themselves, and each is an act of division separating human individuals into generalized groups. The lens of categories leaves out the essence of the human experience, the concepts that are universally understood and by which we understand each other. In the ancient Chinese I Ching it says,

     “However people may differ in disposition and education, the foundations of human nature are the same in everyone. And every human being can draw in the course of their education from the inexhaustible wellspring of the divine in human nature….but we may fail, in our education, to penetrate the real roots of humanity and remain fixed in convention, or collapse and neglect self-development.”*
 The limited definitions that go with the labels and categories can’t begin to describe the 360 degrees of experience or the deep well of human potential. Images do it better. Our feelings choose what we see, so our choice of what we look at reflects our current inner world. Words may be markers for the types of things we talk about but, except in literature, don’t convey the nature of experience. Art is an opening to the well, the connection to what will nourish in a way that develops the individual. It communicates through the universal metaphor of where we are and the condition illuminated is understood by all human beings because we’re built to move around in the world for the same reasons and by the same mechanisms. We see the state of balance and the trajectories of moving objects and know what to do in relation to them. The parietal lobes are dedicated to the core consciousness of where we are, processing a visual/kinesthetic understanding. From infancy, we learn the way the world behaves in a commonsense physics that becomes so automatic it’s taken for granted, yet it’s a complex multifaceted intelligence at the foundation of conceptual knowledge. Cultivating that level of understanding is a way to build on our commonality. Human differences are just the skin of who we are. Labeling all the differences emphasizes divisions that are small given the foundation we share.
    The particular details of every person’s life are varied, but they are structured by shared ways of living. The locations of our memories may look very different but the similar patterns of satisfying basic needs are common to us all. The pattern of home, the pattern of school, work, social gathering, create common circuitry through the way we function within them. Given an image of a nest, we understand its meaning by the condition of the nest, what is or is not there that is significant. Understanding the meaning of surroundings and the metaphor of where we are is developed by looking at art. This builds the circuits of visual sensitivity and triggers personal reflection that connects with universal human meaning structure. It needs no translation and creates bridges where words cannot.

*from Hexagram 48  Ching   The Well

Thursday, July 27, 2017


Roger Federer and Art

    When I heard that Roger Federer liked modern art, I was immediately curious about what, and though I never found that out, the search itself was interesting. Most of the listings you get if you put his name together with art are paintings of him and articles about his playing as art. The best is the 2006 David Foster Wallace piece in the New York Times describing him.
Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.
The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.(1)
     A decade later he is still winning grand slams. Mihaly Czentmihali wrote that the creation of one’s own self can be as exciting as writing a symphony. What moves me about Roger Federer and Serena Williams is that they have done just that, created a work of art that sculpts both body, skill and character out of the whole of themselves. Roger and Serena are examples of embodied art in the realm of immediate intelligence.
     When someone is centered and expressive of the core of their being, that’s art. It takes skill to reach a relationship with a mode of expression that enables it to be a natural extension of the body, responses finely tuned to go where intuition leads. The body/mind knows what it knows and can act before thought. This metaknowledge is part of the initial feeling. Not just comprised of emotion, our feelings are as complex as we are, responses from the whole picture of our background in combination with our current state. Because Roger Federer has developed so many ways to hit a tennis ball together with all he’s seen about how the opponents play he’s developed a body/mind response that’s highly sophisticated yet unencumbered by analysis. Like any artist he extends the range of what tennis can be.

In a short piece in Art News, Andrew Russeth quoted a Sports Illustrated interview with Roger Federer saying he liked modern art because it helped him keep an open mind, that as he gets older it gives him inspiration. Watching tennis at its best inspires me to stretch my own capabilities. Excellence is always inspiring.

Modern art opens the mind by pushing the edges of perception. This enlarges the scope of choices. Looking at art increases sensitivity to intuitive response and awareness of how we’re led by underlying overall adjustments, the inclinations that move us before we’ve figured them out. Art attunes our feelings to meaningful form and so builds the scope of understanding. The brain is structured to mirror the spatial world and understand the meaning of things by how everything looks within it. The more in harmony we are with ourselves and what’s happening around us the better we can flow with it. Focused attention comes after immediate attention reacts.

Tennis is a demanding and artful sport. Players styles are unique and bigger doesn’t mean better. Women’s tennis is treated with the same respect as men’s and provides just as many opportunities to be amazed.  The players we like best are as personal as the art we like, each with an individual style of meeting the challenges posed by another. This year’s US Open will include record setting players, still at the top of their form. It’s an opportunity to be both impressed and inspired.