The other evening I was walking through my new neighborhood in L.A. on my way to the grocery store just as it was turning dark. I walked past women pushing their baby strollers, kids playing, guys working on a car, and a man who seemed slightly drunk, stumbling along. All of them different, all of them different than me, yet all of us made up of the same stuff, the same feelings and frustrations, the same capacities to love the world or feel alienated from it. I thought, since we all contain within us the same diverse and even contradictory components of an interior life, there is really nobody with whom we cannot deeply empathize if we consider them in their full humanity. Despite our separateness, we are that closely connected. Then at the end of the road I faced a brick three-story apartment building in which all the units had their lights on and the various movements and activities of the tenants could all be seen from one point of view. I have always loved the lit window at night because it creates a mysterious desire to know something of the life lived behind it; it is a kind of metaphor for the desire to know and to connect. What was particularly striking at this moment, however, was my privileged vantage point. While the tenants were all behind walls going about their separate lives, I was looking at a kind of grid through which I could see them all. From this perspective, I saw all the individual parts as connected, as a larger whole.
As I continued walking, a conversation in my head evolved between myself, family members both dead and alive, friends, teachers, and colleagues. Along with the internal voice, naturally, I experience an internal image–not like a detailed photograph that one can inspect but more like a memory composite that renders the essence of the person in appearance and gesture. These voices and images seem to me to have an independent life of their own that is related to but not the same as the physical life of any given person. They have their own characteristics and personalities yet they are somehow intimately linked to my own thought processes; they are not me and they are me at the same time. What was happening “in my head” with these voices and images was very much related to the thoughts I was having while looking around the neighborhood. I was experiencing the same paradox of being a separate entity that I think of as myself, on the one hand, and being a part of one transpersonal being, the Self (with capital -S) in Jungian terms. Only this was happening not just in terms of what I was regarding in sight that was nearby, but also in terms that defy our common assumptions about how space and time operate. Don’t images exist inside us with a reality that make us question whether beings may be in more than one place and time at the same time? Certainly that is the case if we think of the subtle body in dreams as being more than just a creation of our brains, a kind of free-form exercise in individual imaginations. And don’t those dreams that we spend so much time having, in which people we know appear and reappear, already underscore our nature as being connected to those people? And doesn’t the way dream imagery defies normal space and time restrictions point to a dematerialized realm in which we exist as something closer to Spirit, as part of a larger Whole, and in a dimension that suggests an eternal presence? As the lyrics to a Coldplay song go,”Those who are dead are not dead, they’re just people in my head.”
Images, whether we see them with our eyes or with our mind’s eye–in everyday sight, prompted by verbal description, through photographs, art, dreams, memory, or visions–are presences. What I was experiencing that night was a powerful sense of presence in everything, but presences that were also profoundly connected and to be regarded equally with the same love and compassion. All these things that I had reflected on in consciousness were first, that is primarily, seen with the eyes. The eyes, which as perceptual apparatus distinguish parts through color, light, shading, and line, and which help us in our personal psychology distinguish egoic self from other (me from not-me), are also the means through which we most basically understand the connection between all things. It is, I think, the cosmologist, Brian Swimme, who said that eyes were invented so that consciousness could know itself. They are a point of departure in our imagination and consciousness for visualizing wholeness, the One Being that everything is, the Self. The question of this connection between parts and whole is already built into the facts of vision, for we know that we do not see the world as it is in its completeness, but only partially, as two-dimensional images on the retina that are seen by two eyes from slightly different perspectives and somehow formulated by the mind into something that seems like a world of solid, separate objects that is consistent and negotiable by our body in space. Natural vision itself is already a kind of practical illusion. As David Marr, one of the great researchers into visual cognition, said, vision “is a process that produces from images of the external world a description that is useful to the viewer and not cluttered with irrelevant information.” He points out that what we think of as discrete objects is not so much a fact of sight but a matter of selection on a continuum of parts and wholes:
“Is a nose an object? Is a head one? Is it still one if it is attached to a body? What about a man on horseback? These questions show the difficulty in trying to formulate what should be recovered as a region from an image are so great as to amount almost to philosophical problems. There is really no answer to them–all these things can be an object if you want to think of them that way or they can be part of a larger object.”
Visual cognition itself, when examined or reflected upon, already points toward the central paradox that the wisdom traditions deal with: what are we? how can we be both a part and a whole, a being that has discontinuous and continuous existence, a creature of the physical world but also something that is beyond the report of our senses. In the mind, at any rate, the “larger object” that Marr talks about can be extended infinitely and the part, for that matter, may be contracted infinitesimally.
As somebody trained in looking at things and appreciating the sense of sight, I have always found myself having reservations about one aspect of the means to finding that connection to wholeness (or God) in the contemplative directions of the great wisdom traditions: the renunciation of the senses. One of the major ideals of medieval monastic life, for example, was that asceticism was a necessary means to achieve a closer relationship to God. The Desert Fathers thought that it was when the body dried up that the spirit began to flow. Benedictine monks saw a division between the secular and spiritual realms and conceived of their lives as a renunciation of the world in order to live more closely in contact with the Divine, the Eternal Life. In truth, the dialogue between the sensual and the ascetic as paths to God was more complicated than this even within monasticism let alone Christianity in general, but there is nevertheless a pronounced ascetic streak among the monks, the purpose of which was to be more closely connected to Spirit.
To turn further eastward, in the Eight Limbs of Yoga elaborated on in his Yoga Sutras (perhaps of the 2nd century BCE), Patanjali outlines a Yogic progression that begins with moral observances and ends with samadhi. The Fifth Limb of Yoga is pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. This is a necessary step that leads to dharana (concentration), then dhyana (meditation), and finally to samadhi (the highest form of meditation, enlightenment). Patanjali says, “Our senses seem to drag us around in the external world, whether pursuing material objects, food, or circumstances related to professional, social, or economic life. Through the routine practice of pratyahara at daily meditation time, we gradually gain positive control over the mind being obsessively drawn towards all of those objects.”
In the Indian tradition, the Buddha, while on his spiritual quest, takes up some of the extreme asceticism of his contemporaries and famously decides that what they are accomplishing is nothing but tiring his body. Because it is after his renunciation of this extreme asceticism that he becomes enlightened, his path is known as The Middle Way, which recommends steering a course between addiction to the senses and addiction to self-mortification and was part of the Buddha’s first teaching after Enlightenment. As the story goes, it was through a sense impression that he came up with the concept of The Middle Way. Hearing a lute player, he realizes that the strings can be neither too tight nor too loose if the instrument is to make a pleasant sound. A taming of sensual extremes, which keep us tied solely to the physical world–the world of samsara, of suffering—makes sense, of course, as a corrective to our human shortcomings in perspective determined by our body, ego, and senses. It also makes sense as a suitable manner in which to experience our developmental end at the “highest,” most spiritual, most integrated, least material and least separated point.
Indeed, it is partly a gap in the perceptual process that led Christian mystics, for example, to seek out the realm of imageless devotion, which corresponds to the higher states of contemplation in other traditions. Because we can only experience the world through our senses, which is what endows that world with qualities like sound and color unique to our perceptual apparatus, we must also realize our perceptual limitations, which suggests that our knowledge of the world is received and articulated in very particular ways but also that there is a world out there “as it is” that is not the same as that which we experience through the senses. For Meister Eckhart, the fouteenth-century German mystic, the move away from images was the natural progression of complete union with and self-identification as God. He says, “Thou shalt know him without image, without semblance and without means. — ‘But for me to know God thus, with nothing between, I must be all but he, he all but me.’ — I say, God must be very I, I very God, so consummately one that this he and this I are one is, in this is-ness working one work eternally.” Furthermore, Eckhart. pushes beyond the dichotomy between matter and spirit because spirit is still a kind of thought form in our mind: “if thou lovest God as God, as spirit, as Person or as image, that all must go… Love him as he is: a not-God, a not-spirit, a not-Person, a not-image; as sheer, pure, limpid unity, alien from all duality. And in this one let us sink down eternally from nothingness to nothingness” The negative language is meant to point to an understanding beyond all form and images, even the concept of invisible, ever-present spirit. But in that sense even a “not-image” is only a kind of image or form pointing to something else that still evokes to some extent the visual imagination if it can be discussed at all.
More recently, Cynthia Tucker has said in an article excerpt sent through the Buddhist magazine Tricycle’s Daily Dharma e-mail,”The current myth among some meditation circles is that the more mindful we are, the more beauty we’ll perceive in mundane objects. To the mind with bare attention, even the suds in the dishpan–as their bubbles glint and wink in the light–are windows on a divine radiance. That’s the myth. But the truth is almost the opposite: in fact, the more mindfulness we have, the less compelling sense-objects seem, until at last we lose all desire for them.” In fairness, almost all statements are probably only partial truths or fingers pointing toward the moon and it may be that loss of “desire” is the important point made here, but isn’t this kind of sensual asceticism still actually a denial of a part of the reality that makes up the wholeness we are trying to encounter? While teaching the Prajna Paramita (The Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom), one of my meditation teachers brought in a vase of flowers and placed it in the center of the group. We had a visual meditation, twenty minutes looking at the flowers. Were they there or not there? Certainly there was some part that was not, for they came out of nothing that we can sense and would return to nothing that we can sense. We were experiencing them in their visible and invisible aspects. The flowers themselves became a paradox as they oscillated between being and non-being, the seen and the unseen. And in this sense, our selves being made up of the same basic dynamics as the flowers (the stuff that poets always write about), one felt a kinship with them. “Form is formlessness; formlessness is form,” as the Prajna Paramita puts it.
I realize that this kind of spiritual asceticism is for many part of a path (a means to understand that there is something beyond the visible, that we are more than just our sense-experiencing selves) rather than an end of the journey, which is why eventually the paradox of this world and that, part and whole, manifest and unmanifest can be held together in some form of non-dual awareness. What happens after the highs of spiritual insight or various experiences of the transcendent is nicely put in the phrase, “after the ecstasy, the laundry.” Nobody can maintain such states indefinitely and still exist in the physical world, and an attachment to such a state would in any case be a kind of addiction. So having reached a goal or having gained a certain kind of knowledge that involves a movement away from the physical world, the senses, and images, we still exist in the mundane world that we negotiate through our senses and perceive in images. In other words, we are still of two worlds that is really one but which we can only intuitively grasp as such. Could we not, rather than renouncing the senses as one of the chief means to attain spiritual heights and experience the One, instead cultivate our senses as spiritual gifts in order to see what they might reveal to us in a life that is both physical and spiritual and seems to have been meant to be both. Certainly this is one of the functions we can experience in works of art that are vestiges of heightened perceptual awareness on the part of their makers and are paradoxical in their very nature as representations, as things that point beyond themselves, which we take to be at once the thing depicted and the act of depicting, a work always both of Being and Becoming.
As condensed instances of visually acute perception, informed by other aspects of consciousness, and ordered by a particular intelligence, works of art are exemplary forms of what we can all experience to some extent in our everyday vision. The visual brought into a higher-order awareness, they can be catalysts for transformation and for contemplative experience that has much in fact in common with meditative states. Ken Wilber in The Eye of Spirit emphasizes this contemplative function for the viewer in a way that questions some of the spiritual assumptions behind sensual asceticism. He says, “When we look at any beautiful object (natural or artistic), we suspend all other activity, and we are simply aware, we only want to contemplate the object. While we are in this contemplative state, we do not want anything from the object; we just want to contemplate it; we want it to never end. We don’t want to eat it, or own it, or run from it, or alter it; we only want to look, to contemplate… In that contemplative awareness, our own egoic grasping in time comes momentarily to rest. We relax into our basic awareness. We rest with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be… Great art grabs you against your will, and then suspends your will. You are ushered into a quiet clearing, free of desire, free of grasping, free of ego, free of the self-contraction. And through that opening or clearness in your own awareness may come flashing higher truths, subtler revelations, profound connections.” This is just one possible viewer response in which the visual becomes a pathway to the eternal, a separate object seen prompts awareness of our connection, our wholeness. The aesthetic, which is grounded in our senses, provides access to the spiritual.
There are possibilities for seeing this throughout the history of art, but for the sake of brevity I will use only two modern artists as examples who provide that access in very different ways. In his essay on Cézanne, the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty points out that this sense of completeness of reality, of relationship between the visual and a larger totality, was what the artist was after as he painted on his canvas in front of objects or landscapes. “The outline,” he says, “should therefore be a result of the colors if the world is to be given in its true density. For the world is a mass without gaps, a system of colors across which the receding perspective, the outlines, angles, curves are inscribed like lines of force; the spatial structure vibrates as it is formed… If the painter is to express the world, the arrangement of his colors must bear within this indivisible whole, or else his painting will only hint at things and will not give them the imperious unity, the presence, the insurpassable plenitude which is for us the definition of the real.” What Cézanne was after, it might be said, is something that is available to our own perception if we pay close enough attention to it: the wholeness or completeness of the world that we think we see or conceptualize as parts, the gapless connections between the parts or objects. Cézanne himself said, “I am oriented toward the intelligence of the Pater Omnipotens.” Merleau-Ponty adds, “He was, in any case, oriented toward the idea or project of an Infinite Logos.” To attend to a painting by Cézanne, then, is to be filled with a kind of plenitude, to experience a numinous quality in objects, that points toward that which is both eternal and without boundaries. The “profound connections” and “flashing higher truths” that Wilber talks about as possibilities for viewers looking at great art is for the artist an integral part of the making of a painting, the process of getting the objects or motif down on canvas. We intuit the higher order of perception not just in the work of art as object or subject matter but in reflecting on the particular act of creation itself.
In Wassily Kandinsky’s famous essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art, the ideal artist is seen as someone at odds with the dark clouds of materialism who strides alone before others into the future, often not understood. He pictures the life of the spirit as “a large acute-angled triangle divided into horizontal segments divided into unequal parts with the narrowest part uppermost.” He describes what the triangle represents: “The whole triangle is moving slowly, almost invisibly, forwards and upwards. Where the apex was today the second segment is tomorrow; what today can only be understood by the apex and to the rest of the triangle is an incomprehensible gibberish, forms tomorrow the true thought and feeling of the second segment.” The visionary artist stands in that developmental apex. For his own age, Kandinsky saw the lower parts and the apex as representing the materialistic and the non-materialistic elements respectively, which have their counterparts in other pairings: inner form and life as opposed to outer form and life, abstraction contrasted with naturalism. (Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso are to varying degrees and for different reasons artists of the non-material for Kandisnsky).
We may take the author’s treatment of color in this work as a specific visual domain where the terms of this antithesis come into play. “To let the eye stray over a palette, splashed with many colors, produces a dual result,” he says, “In the first place one receives a purely physical impression, one of pleasure and contentment at the varied beautiful colors… They are merely superficial and leave no lasting impression.” However, he continues, “to a more sensitive soul the effect of colors is deeper and intensely moving. And so we come to the second main result of looking at colors: their psychic effect. They produce a corresponding spiritual vibration…” Color harmony (one definition of harmony being “the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole) must then also rest on these vibrations. So for Kandinsky the central paradox of the wisdom traditions–the coexistence of the material and the spiritual, in one terminology or another–is actually articulated as two possibilities for viewing a painting, two possibilities inherent in the sense of sight. Form too is divided between that which seeks to fashion some material object and that which remains more abstract, “describing only a non-material, spiritual entity.” Form harmony also relies on a “corresponding vibration in the human soul.” Kandinsky saw the greatest possibilities for the viewing of art not as a seduction of the senses but rather as an education for the soul. Abstract composition, whichpointed toward the non-material was a mode of art that made sense given the times. Kandinsky says, “When we remember that… spiritual experience is quickening, that positive science, the firmest basis of human thought, is tottering, that dissolution of matter is imminent, we have reason to hope that the hour of pure composition is not far away.” The visual here provides access to the non-material and it is the artist’s responsibility, as the person in the apex of the spiritually evolving triangle to create this new language of Spirit.
Although art is a special case, it seems to me that this also holds more widely for the visual world in general. To seriously investigate light, shadow, color, form (in art, cognitive science, anatomy, geology, astronomy, cosmology, and so on) is to see the profound connections between things, their interconnected unity, the play between opposing forces, the relation between macrocosm and microcosm. There is good reason that medieval artists depicted God in his creative aspect as one of themselves, an architect. The primordial creative act, which brings form out of emptiness and creates the many out of the one, is represented in this case as a human who makes from his mind monumental buildings that we can see and touch, and in which we experience things spatially and acoustically. In fact, the very bridge between the One and the Many, the Unmanifest and Manifest, is the creative or generative act, which necessarily makes seemingly separate things with their own boundaries: babies, trees and flowers, novels with beginnings and ends, paintings within frames, buildings with doorways through which we exit and enter. Isn’t it then a bit hasty to think of denigrating sensual information as the fast-track to spiritual Enlightenment, to experiencing that sense of the One? Might it not be the case that, rather than Enlightenment attained this way being the apogee of spiritual understanding, it is the unitary and manifold in existence, the spiritual and material, the invisible and the visible, whichwere meant–at least since Creation–to be experienced as part of an ever-revolving continuum that provides access at many different points (some cultivated in spiritual practice, others from social experience, others in our relationships, and others that simply come built into the life cycle) and by many different means (meditation, sex, participating in groups, through art, literature, music, nature) to sensing Wholeness in our separateness, and that paradox is a necessary state of existence if we think anything worthwhile emerged from the first great Kosmic Act. We know that in so many respects what we see is only the surface of things, but it is also this very sight that touches us, fills us with awe and wonder, and provokes us to plumb the depths behind things and thereby broaden our consciousness.