Tag Archives: life

The Crazy Element that Makes Art… Art

What Does Art Have?—

Aesthetics has always asked, What does all good art have in common? Is there some common denominator? What is art, anyway? What is beauty? There may be more than one answer to those questions. Sometimes art does different things and serves different purposes. Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes stood as art (and not Brillo Boxes) because of what they were “saying” about consumer culture. I spoke of that here.

Lessons Unit: Brillo: Is It Art? – The Andy Warhol Museum

As Immanuel Kant said, art invokes within us, a sense of awe and deep pleasure. Like nature, it takes us where words cannot.

This helps us understand what art does, but still feels inconclusive, as far as what art has. Or is.

Yet, after taking great interest in aesthetics as a philosophy student, through my 20s, I still couldn’t answer, at least to my own satisfaction, the question: What does all good art have in common? Even if there are multiple answers, or none at all. (Maybe it’s like asking what religion is… there is no common denominator. Only what scholars have termed “family resemblances.”)

Nonetheless, it is only now, through direct experience, after 30 years of painting in watercolor, and writing poetry… and writing in general, have I started to get a glimpse of what I feel to be a truthful response.

But first, indulge a memory with me… I promise, it’ll bring us back to the question of art!

The Storm Rolling In—

I remember running to the classroom window, pushing aside those heavy beige, vinyl drapes, to see the sky turning dark, and the sudden burst of light that illuminated the asphalt outside. Then the rumble. And the anticipation it brought on… how loud will it get? How close will it come?

It wasn’t merely because we rarely get ferocious storms in Southern California. My excitement, which I still feel when storms approach, reveals more than that. Alluding to Kant again, who recognized that nature most powerfully elicits that sense of awe, that all art is but a kind of exemplar of the sublimity we find in nature, we find our clue as to what makes both art and nature riveting in the same way. And, the storms outside of LA were all the more so.

It was in the Midwest somewhere… we heard it coming. Like a high speed train roaring. Getting closer. As we ran to open the door, the wind pushed it against the wall. Yet, we couldn’t resist and so we charged into the flurry and out into the middle of the street and it felt like the world was coming to an end. We stood and watched with wild hair and our arms outstretched against the electric jet stream of warm air. We were buzzing. Suddenly turned the heavens poured out a river and in 20 minutes, it was gone.

Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience—

I felt that frenzied excitement when I saw John Bonham’s son and his Led Zeppelin Experience last year. My own reaction was totally unexpected. But that’s the whole point, as I’ll explain below. A genuine reaction to art is, and has to be, totally uncontrived. And to do that, the art will possess some element that is wild, like the storms above. More on that in a moment. When those first notes of Immigrant Song exploded, I was, at that moment, like a teenager. I remember jumping up out of my seat, straining on my tiptoes to see… at any cost and discomfort… perhaps managing to blurt out Oh My God a few times because I couldn’t say anything else. Because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing or hearing. Because teenagers do crazy things. Because teenagers have energy (except for when they can’t get out of bed).

Presence (The location of Beginner’s Mind)—

More to the point, a youngster’s sense of physical presence exceeds their mental ruminations. And since thinking is draining, the result is vitality… and there has always been an inverse relationship between presence and the degree to which you are in your head. Meaning, the more you are in your head, in the world of thoughts, the less present you are. It starts when we become adults. When we become rational. Teenagers haven’t gotten there yet. So, they are still free.

That’s why we adults have so much fun at events like that, we don’t just act like teenagers for that moment in time. We become as kids again. Because we are in our bodies… not in our heads. The music (and all art… and nature) is a conduit for feeling. We are feeling the music, and leaving the world of thought behind for that moment. And thus, we have no sense of “should be’s.” We act naturally, in all our exuberance. In Zen, this is what it means to have a “Beginner’s Mind.” To be blissfully ignorant of the world’s ideas and judgments. And so, free to express oneself authentically.

Crazy… It’s The Same Criterion for Both The Artist and The “Feeler”—

It’s not holding back. When a singer moves us it’s because she’s not holding back. She’s willing to sing at the edge, right at the place where her voice might crack. But she’s not concerned with that. She’s not playing it safe. She’s not tightened or constricted or self conscious. It’s what good writers do. It’s what good actors do. She’s doing, in her art form, what we wish we could do in life. She’s purging emotions as we wish we could. And thus, there is a purification process in the art exchange, for both artist and viewer, through the feeling of release.

And so, we’ve come around to what I feel answers the question… What does all good art have in common?

It could be said this way: It’s the element of crazy. Something wild and crazy has to happen in that painting, in the dance, in the routine, in the song, in the performance.

Why? Because art unleashes something that has been laid to rest in the depths of our soul… Ultimately, it’s fear. At the very least, it reveals what we wouldn’t do in “real life.” In that sense, it is therapeutic. It is revelatory. It reveals the capacity to let go and to abandon ourselves. It reveals possibilities we thought weren’t for us… to be whimsical, carefree and unguarded. To be fearless.

Which ultimately means… To be FREE.

When asked, “what does freedom mean to you?“ the iconic singer Nina Simone simply said, “to be fearless.”

But we don’t dare, in our everyday lives. We were taught to be rational. We’re careful. We’re measured. We’re prudent. We’re tight. We don’t dare take a chance!

The Wild Stuff Makes it Special—

It’s the big, bold tree stroke in the foreground of a painting. The stroke that makes you think, as an artist, or someone watching from behind, as you’re about to do it, “Oh no!… You’re going to ruin it!“ because the background was done so carefully. Reason will dictate… Leave well enough alone.

That’s where art steps in. Art messes it all up, like crazy hair. Like that sky that turned black before it opened up and flooded the streets for those 20 minutes.

Art is where convention is, ipso facto, irrelevant, since creativity is by its very definition, the birthing, or the configuration of something new. And this process often looks weird or wild or simply… crazy. To be clear, this doesn’t and shouldn’t mean harmful. Nor necessarily loud. But it does mean bold… in myriad ways. Think John Cage in his silent symphony. Think Marina Abromovic, in her meditative, interactive art. Think Cindy Sherman in her performance pieces, which feature herself as objet d’art, in different guises. All pushed boundaries and convention in their own weird and wonderful way. Keep in mind, to sit still is bold. To be quiet is bold.

In a more prosaic example, I remember seeing footage of Joe Cocker singing at Woodstock, as a girl… I asked my mom what was wrong with him… why was he shaking? Yet I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

Nothing new? The row over Marina Abramović's next show | Apollo ...

Beginner’s Mind—

It’s that element of crazy, again. It feels like freedom—the most basic human requirement. It’s the quality of being uncontrived. The Zen masters call naturalness. And it springs forth from the “Beginners Mind,” which is a mind that is free of concepts. In plain terms, it is a mind that is free of the “should be’s”. Free from fear of failure. Free from the corruption of other people’s judgments and opinions. Free from the rules of convention that we spoke of. Totally spontaneous and totally yourself. Joe Cocker let the spirit move through him (and the drugs). Cindy Sherman had to disappear, in a sense, in order to become the characters she became.

A Strange and Perfect Pairing of Chutzpah and Selflessness—

It’s chutzpah. It’s bold. It’s brave. It breaks the rules. It can’t be tamed. It’s why every new genre has to break from the past. It’s rock and roll. And by rock and roll, I don’t only mean rock and roll as we think of it today. Using it loosely at this moment, I mean that which possesses that quality of boldness that I have been speaking of… Vivaldi, by this standard, was as rock and roll as it gets, with his reputed flamboyance and innovative spirit. He just couldn’t “plug in.” He was wild, like all rockers, who do whatever the hell they want to do. They scream and yell and kick and move their hips, like Elvis. They growl like Gregg Allman and Leon Russell… just growl on tune!

But, in some measure of paradox, the artist has to lose himself, through the boldness. Or, said differently, the boldness must not come from ego, lest it be contrived, which is the antithesis of beginner’s mind. And the same is true for the viewer. And together, the journey is taken into abandon. And this is freedom.

It’s what good acting does… The actor loses himself. He lets go of control, for that moment. He becomes the character, as effort gives way to effortlessness. It’s why Joshua Bell, the violinist, once said that at the moment of performance, all practicing is let go of. He has to trust at that moment that it’s in his bones.

The Enzo Brings it Back Around—

enso-zen-circle

The Japanese Enzo displays this element of naturalness and spontaneity. Which is wild and irrational in its appearance of not-caring. And… free. Like all good calligraphy, you would never “go back over it.” Because perfection has nothing to do with it. Because perfection is in the head! The question is rather, is it “felt?” Not, “did you think it through?” Were you inspired at that moment? Was it free? Was it confident (and thus, bold)? Was it authentic?

Like me, at that concert… when we act naturally, out of beginner’s mind, there is no limiting or constraining sense of “should be”… there’s no sense of embarrassment. There’s no sense of “not good enough.” Like the wild storm, you just pummel through and do what you came to do… with no inhibition.

For a plant or a stone to be natural is no problem. But for us there is some problem, indeed a big problem… The true practice of zazen is to sit as if drinking water when you are thirsty. Then you have naturalness. ~Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryo Suzuki)

In this way, art conveys what we wish we could be in “real life.” We long for that spirit of abandon. It’s why we love road trips; it’s why we love falling in love (“we are not in our right mind”… it’s been called a kind of temporary insanity, but we love it). That’s why we miss being children.

Why I Don’t Set Resolutions

sinking raft.jpeg

Resolutions Are Too Extreme—

The commonly given explanation for “why resolutions don’t work” focuses on the idea that the resolutions we set reflect extrinsic expectations, rather than intrinsic ones. Or, put simply… because the resolutions reflect what others expect of us, rather than what we really want for ourselves.

I don’t think this gets to the heart of why resolutions don’t tend to work, as I don’t think many folks would set resolutions based on what others want.

I believe most people truly do want to change whatever they’ve set out to change; it’s just that the resolution is too extreme.

Habits Rule—

The reason why extreme gestures set us up for failure is because for the most part, barring urgent situations, we operate on habits, rather than sudden, severe and dramatic actions. It is our habits — carried out consistently, over time — that bring lasting transformation.

Cultivating New Behaviors—

Sudden and mighty actions require great strength and willpower, both of which will work in those urgent situations, when we have to act suddenly and when we surprise even ourselves with what we can do when circumstances gave us no alternative. But there is only so much willpower we can draw on. It’s like a muscle car… good for a sprint or a car show, but will run out of gas quickly.

And I’ve noticed that most resolutions do take this dramatic approach. To use another analogy, it’s like diving into the deep end, before cultivating a swimming habit that feels easy and fun. This is true for most new and preferred behaviors, that would do well with an gradual and doable build-up. For example, running, or cycling, or even positive thinking… it’s a matter of giving more “airtime” to the desired activity, little by little.

To focus on running for a moment: The idea would be to jog for a short stretch, while taking your usual morning walk. Or, with positive thinking… go soft about it: “right now, in this moment, I have everything I need,” as opposed to “everything is wonderful and perfect and I’m so happy” (which doesn’t feel believable).

Reversing Old Behaviors—

This is true for reversing a certain behavior, as well.

Where cultivating new behavior has to do with making it easy and soft and doable, rather than extreme and overwhelming, reversing behavior has to do with momentum.

But both go back to the limited supply of willpower.

Once momentum is in place, we have no choice but to rely on this limited commodity. If will power is all we’ve got, we are poking holes in our own raft. The trick is to cultivate a certain habit while the “problem” is still small… while the situation is in its earliest stages. Like those holes in the raft… if you wait until there are too many, the momentum of the mounting flood will be overwhelming and impossible to curtail.

So, easy does it is the game!

Simplest Relationship Advice, Ever

If you’re happy and satisfied within yourself, you’ll find any reason to be happy while in the company of anyone else. Your perspective will be shaped by your state of mind, and thus, you’ll see only the good in them and all around you.

But, if you aren’t happy and satisfied within yourself, you’ll find any excuse to be disappointed by what the other does or does not do. You’ll notice the offenses readily and will be quick to spot the deficiencies everywhere.

The latter sets up a kind of neediness, in which, you’ll look constantly to the other person to do certain things or stop doing certain things, so as to fulfill the fantasies in your mind and your idealized vision of how things should go.

This is what Esther Hicks refers to as “looking for love in all the wrong places.” It is why self-care and your relationship with yourself is at the core of all other relationships. Like a healthy heart, it keeps everything else around it healthy and happy.

I know it is tricky because… “what about when the other really does display intolerable tendencies and inappropriate patterns?”

In response to this all too realistic objection, I am thinking of Alain de Boton, a fellow philosopher, and his successful Ted Talk called Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. In a humorous way, he suggests that we are all… well… a bit crazy. We’ve all got surprises and hidden neuroses that make us all challenging to be around. And to expect to find someone who doesn’t require some tolerance and patience and forgiveness is fanciful. Even foolish.

It’s not to say that there is never a time when walking away is the right thing to do, but when it is, you’ll know so surely and confidently, that you won’t need an article or a Ted Talk to tell you. You’ll feel the answer in your bones.

Beautiful Sky (How Does Presence Heal?)

30529891574_1b6509ab54_b.jpg

How does presence heal?

Not as an idea, it doesn’t… and won’t. Because as an idea, it’s just one more thing to work on. One more thing to master and inevitably, get wrong. And so, it becomes another project, another item on the list: Meditate for 15m

But on this day, as I was taking my early morning walk with the dogs, grey clouds were stretched across the summer sky. The first sunbeams of the day were searching out any cracks they could find. I gazed up at all of this, while the dogs were sniffing around, and a few drops fell on my face.

The welcome contrast of a cloudy morning in the middle of the hottest and driest month took my thoughts back to the summers spent with my Italian grandmother, in Las Vegas. I remember going with grandma to the market very early, on many mornings, just to “beat the heat.”

~~~

But one morning, we were lazing about as a sweet rain cleansed away the swelter. The coolness that stood in, on that day, awakened new scents and sounds. The strangely pleasant smell of wet asphalt filled the room where we were lying together. And chirping… “It sounds close!” … “Must be very close!”

So, I hung the upper part of my nimble, 12-year old body down, to investigate. Peering into the darkness under the bed, something jumped right up at me, grazing my cheek. I yelled out and in a lightening flash, jolted back up again. We laughed and couldn’t stop laughing. We laughed at my silliness and at the surprise of the moment. We laughed at the delight of it all. And at nothing in particular. And then we laughed some more.

~~~

And at that moment, this morning, while my dogs continued to sniff, I was jolted back… but, differently this time. Away from the to-dos and toward everything that matters. Like a cosmic reminder, a mute meditation bell, a dramatic call to nothing at all, it silenced the busy-ness of the mind, and made room for the bounty in front of me.

It’s All About Switching Gears

My Project
I just finished the main portion of an advanced supplement to my training as a Kundalini Yoga teacher. This module focused on Vitality and Stress and is one of five voluntary courses we can take at the level two classification. What I call the main portion was the time spent in the company of our Sat Sanghat (community) and teachers: three weekends during the last month, which began at 7AM on Saturday and ended at 5PM on Sunday. We basically just went home to sleep on Saturday night. In that way, they were like meditation retreats. But also because, although there was a copious amount of information exchanged, the emphasis was on our experience. So, the days were transformative and intense, with our teachers taking us through the numerous Kriyas and meditations related to the topic of the course. Our continued work is to be done on our own, and consists of reading, journaling, follow-up meetings, an exam, and a 90 day sadhana (personal meditation) to be done every day for 31 minutes.

I have decided to make two of the journal entries public, by way of this blog. The first of these follows, below. It has to be done in a very specific way—we explore any situation from the perspective of what we call, in Kundalini Yoga, the negative mind, the positive mind and the neutral mind, followed by a short commentary arrived at from the state of shuniya—non-attachment. Because this module focused on Vitality and Stress, the situation should be one which was potentially stress-provoking. And it is supposed to be done in an unedited, free-flowing manner.

The perspectives I will present may or not be mine. They may be fabricated, or derivative of those reactions I have witnessed in others around me. Because this is public, I’ll preface the actual journal with an introduction, focusing on the role of the three minds.

Introduction: On The Three Minds
Life without conflict exists in a coffin. ~Yogi Bhajan

So, how do we get through our conflicts with grace? How do we come out clean? The problem comes into focus when you consider that for the majority of the population, the negative mind—which serves the legitimate purpose of alerting us to possible danger—serves as the go-to mode. They get paralyzed by an incessant flow of self-doubt, suspicion, anger, fear and hatred. And they live there. The worst is that in order to feel better, they drink, smoke, party, shop, gamble and take drugs. All of it is for the purpose of silencing the negative mind, of escaping. Our power lies in our ability to switch gears: to go from the negative mind to the positive mind, and finally to the ideal vantage point of the neutral mind, which, like a mirror, reflects reality as it is, without bias or preference.

“It doesn’t matter if you are a Sikh or a Moslem, or a Hindu or a rabbi or a Christian or Jew…if you are a millionaire or a pauper, or if you are beautiful or ugly.” None of it matters if you don’t know how to switch those three gears, says our teacher, Yogi Bhajan.

He says it would be like driving a car and getting stuck in fourth gear. An accident waiting to happen. But all the everyday meltdowns are due to exactly this—getting stuck, like that car. Getting stuck in the negative mind. Although the negative mind is of utmost importance, we don’t want to live there. But we do.

The Situation
My son tells me his ex-girlfriend is pregnant. He tells me she is set on having the baby. They do not intend to get married. He acknowledges it is his. Now his comments as of late make sense: “I think it would be cool to be a young Dad…I’d teach him/her how to play guitar and surf.” I ask all the usual questions, the whole routine that parents do, about what his responsibilities will entail and the changes that may arise in his relationship with his ex. But I am calm.

The Negative Mind
The poor child—growing up in the midst of likely turmoil and perpetual disagreement and disharmony. And this will derail my son from his goals. How will he afford child support at his age? I wouldn’t be able to take on full-time infant care at this point in my life! The disputes between them will inevitably cause her stress, which will create a toxic environment for the developing baby. They’re too young to hold it together for the sake of the child. They’re going to fall apart. How will they ever iron out a mutually satisfactory arrangement when they do? And how will they maintain a peaceful correspondence? 

The Positive Mind
The only thing that makes anything difficult is lack of motivation, and nothing motivates like becoming a parent! Nothing makes a man out of you faster than becoming a father. And I already see positive changes in him—he’s glad he didn’t buy a motorcycle. Hallelujah to that. And he’s talking again about finishing his tests in aviation. This was a timely kick-in-the-pants. Funny how the universe works! No body’s asking you to take on full-time infant care! I’m actually looking forward to holding a little child-spirit in my arms. A little mini-my-son! I’d love to take it around and teach him or her all I can. We’re going to completely spoil it. And I can water-paint while it sleeps. And push the stroller while I walk Marcel at the same time. I’ll be one enthusiastic, young-ish Grandma!

The Neutral Mind
In Indian spirituality, they didn’t choose to have this baby; the baby chose them. It is beautiful. Because it’s life. It’s natural. Everyday, babies are born in as many diverse situations as your imagination allows. No one is ever ready to have a baby. And when you scratch beneath the surface, even the ones who meet society’s expectations and appearances are a mess. Appearance is never a guarantee of anything. The most important thing is a mother’s loving arms and she has shown herself to be equal to the task. I was just like her when I had my son. I was her. And nearly the same age. And equally determined. Fiercely protective from the first moment. It grounded me and brought such joy into my life. The things I thought mattered didn’t matter at all. It was just the two of us for over two years and those years were so cozy and sweet. I would just stare at my baby’s beautiful face. I shall tell her this. Life will present us with one challenge and seeming crisis, one after another, for ever. That’s what we’re here for. The only question is, how will we present ourselves?. With love and acceptance? Or with fear and insecurity? From expansiveness? Or limitation? After all, we can either accept it now, or accept it later. My task is to show up as a source of upliftment, positive energy, love and support. I can do that. Their challenge is to rise to the occasion. I get to watch my son grow up now. I choose to reside in faith. We don’t really get to control much, anyway.

Final Comment
As my teacher Gurudhan said, “our task is to open ourselves up to what is in front of us.” God…the universe…infinity…life…will put situations in front of us. Are you receptive? It’s all about change, he explained. “And how we face that change is part of the adventure of going into different realms of consciousness.”

When you are not bound by the negative force or the positive force…Then YOU are the force. ~Yogi Bhajan

~

PS. Stay tuned for the second journal entry!