My practice of art
I create out of a need to connect, participate and express. I come to my art practice with a nondualistic and process oriented approach. While most of my pieces are centered on personal themes (family, my spiritual practices, my sense of place in this world) what I create is secondary to how I create. Nietzsche asks us in The Will to Power “Can we remove the idea of a goal from the process and then affirm the process in spite of this?” My answer, and I believe Nietzsche’s, is absolutely. In fact, what I understand Nietzsche to be saying is that we are capable of affecting the quality of our lives by our will, that we bring meaning by affirming the process not the goal. As an artist, it is the process through which I create art that brings meaning to me; as such, my art practice is directly informed by nondualistic teachings and practices.
Just a few short years ago, I would not have said that my spiritual/philosophical leanings were nondualistic. In fact it was quite the contrary. I had spent a great deal of time living and exploring dualistic spiritual traditions, especially Christian monastic ones. After an experience which I can only describe as a spontaneous and effortless awareness, I experienced what I have come to know as nondual reality. I saw my connection to all that was around me. There was no separation either from myself or from anything outside of myself. In truth there was no me, and as such no “inside” or “outside”. I felt I had a momentary understanding that there was just One Consciousness, One Being. And quite honestly, this Oneness was overwhelmingly wonderful.
I am acutely aware that as I talk about nondualism and attempt to define and explain my experience it seems that I talk myself back into dualism. That said outside of my personal experience I see nondualism as the realization and awareness that any perceived separation is an illusion; essentially everything we experience resides only in One consciousness.
Many names have been used to describe nondual reality: Oneness, Self, Atman, Realization, Absolute Consciousness. In this reality there is no me or you, there is no subject, no object, no observer or observed, no other…just One. Albert Einstein once said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Mind/ego is what keeps you in that illusion. Some say that in letting go of ego one can realize nondualism. Nondualism, however, is always present, it is what is, all that changes is our Realization of it.
My experience of the nondual came with the sudden understanding that my old reality wasn’t quite expansive enough. The Oneness had come to me came without any effort without invitation, without ceremony. It had just simply revealed itself. Effort was the key in my former dualistic practice and I believed that effort would eventually be rewarded if not in this life, most certainly in the next. With an understanding of nonduality it now appears to me that this just isn’t true.
In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche talks about the Four Great Errors, number one of which is “the error of confusing cause and effect. ”Do this and don’t do that and you will be happy.” Many religions use this idea of cause and effect to frightened its believers into behaving a certain way. But most often people mistake the effect for the cause. We don’t act badly (cause) and have “god punish us” (effect), sometime the case is that we have bad things happen to us (cause) and react badly because of them (effect). “The second error is that of false causality.” Essentially this would be creating and using God as the cause or answer for any unexplained effects in our lives. The third error is that of “imaginary causes.” Nietzsche explains this as our way of giving ourselves the illusion of having control over our lives. This gives us comfort, relief, and a sense of power. Finally the last error is that of free will. Nietzsche sees this as religion’s way of making us feel guilty, that we are free to choose our behaviors and when we choose poorly, we are falling away from that religion.
In my moment of nondual understanding I came to see that my limited religious dogma and the Oneness I experiences didn’t comfortably coexist. My belief system began to crumble away. What I had accepted on faith made no sense to me now. Nietzsche writes “When one gives up the Christian fate, one pulls the right to Christian Morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self evident…Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.” My own experience had shown me that the God I had believed in was really a God that had been constructed, he was an illusion.
Quite honestly, what was left after such a revelation was at first relief. Then came thoughts questioning my own existence. If God was an illusion, what was I? Who was I? While I had realized nondualism in that moment, afterwards I didn’t and don’t feel consistently enlightened. I think what keeps me away from such a state of being is a lifetime of habit of living otherwise. I knew of this nondual reality and wanted to know it again, although I’m not clear on how that will happen.
I was fortunate to be afforded a unique opportunity a year or so after my moment of realization. My life unfolded such that I was living a very unencumbered existence. Over the course of several years I had shed the roles and responsibilities that had defined my life. I was relatively free. I had just asked that universal question, “Who am I?” And now I was given the space to answer it.
How does this relate at all to my practice as artist? It guides my process. Psychologist Rollo May said,“ We cannot will to have insights. We cannot will creativity. But we can will to give ourselves to the encounter with intensity and commitment.” I find much truth in this. From a nondual perspective, I employ my will to influence the quality of my life and experience, ”my encounter.”
In The Gay Science, Nietzsche brings up the idea of the eternal recurrence. Essentially Nietzsche asks you to consider the possibility that you must live your life over and over again, nothing new; every day the same, like the movie Groundhog Day and you are Bill Murray’s Phil. Would you despair or rejoice at the opportunity? There have been many interpretations of the eternal recurrence. Some believe Nietzsche felt that individual will could affect such a life. The Will to Power thus being a striving for achievement that would alter one’s course. Heidegger felt Nietzsche’s intent was more the belief that one needs to give up the idea of control over one’s life. “The self becomes itself through what it is not.” In the Hindu tradition, one would liken the eternal recurrence to samsara, a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. To release yourself from samsara, one must let go of personal identity, ego. I think Nietzsche is really asking us “How would you live if you had to live the same day over and over again? Where would you find meaning and even sanity?” I lean toward Heidegger and Hinduism. If the circumstances of my life could never change, then I could only affect the quality of my living. As such I could suffer or not suffer. I would choose not suffering, and for me that path would be nondualism, letting go of my ego, my identity, all that separates me from realizing Absolute Consciousness.
My practice as a process-oriented artist evolved alongside my spiritual practice. To incorporate the spiritual into my art, I have a yoga and meditation practice. I read and am profoundly influenced by Eastern nondualistic thinkers, specifically Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Lao Tzu, Oyang Hsui, and Ksemaraja; and I am inspired by the teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Patanjali, and H.W.L. Poonja.
Chogryam Trungpa Rinpoche was the founder of Shambhala Buddhism. His teachings include specific writings and practices on Dharma Arts, an outgrowth of which is Shambhala Arts. The purpose of Shambhala Arts is the exploration of the creative process as a contemplative practice. My exposure to this practice directly influences my own process as an artist. Specifically, I’ve learned ways of viewing the world for what it is, rather than for what I believe it to be. These techniques have helped me to see the world through the lens of nondualism. In these classes we never “created art” per se. What we trained ourselves to do was to see the true nature of our surroundings and ourselves. I learned to view the world with “soft eyes;” looking without judgment: no preconceived ideas; no expectation; no value placement. This way of seeing is essential to my practice as an artist.
From the teachings of Ksemaraja, I was given language to explain my experience and tools for finding my way back to realization of nondualism. Ksemaraja was a disciple of tenth century mystic Abhinavagupta, the founder of what is now known as Kashmir Saivism. Ksemaraja authored several texts, one of which was the Pratyabhijnahrdayam, The Secret of Self-Recognition. This text contains 20 sutras, or aphorisms, which essentially explain “autonomous consciousness” (nondual reality) and the path to liberation (freedom from ego and union with absolute consciousness). The eleventh sutra speaks to the dissolution of the perception of separateness. The experience of looking at an object, seeing it, connecting to it, perceiving it, gives rise to something inside you…a recognition of the elemental truth that all that is this object resides within you, and you in it. There is no separation. Once again, as in Shambala Arts, it is with mindful seeing that one is able to break the veil of dualism. As an artist the act of viewing is essential. How I view the world absolutely translates into how I create and what I create.
My art is perhaps most directly influenced by my yoga practice and the yogic teachings of Ramana Maharshi, Patanjali, and Poonja. When I speak of yoga, I mean more than the practice of asana (the physical postures for which yoga is most known). Yoga encompasses many life practices all of which affect the quality of my life. Specifically, yoga facilitates equanimity, joy and compassion. My yoga is essentially cross training for my work as an artist. Both are expressed best when I have a sense of exploration; my practice is mindful (aware, present, conscious); I am not overly concerned with the outcome; there is a sense of give and take–engagement and then stepping back; and I am present with “soft eyes.” Each of these “steps” is also a way of letting go of my ego. And letting go of my ego is how I realize nondualism.
Each of these steps also creates a meaningful experience for me. The process of creating art is self-affirming. There is a Sanskrit word ‘pratibimba’ which means “the spontaneous expression of joy.” Laughter is an example of this. My art practice at its best is pratibimba. In the best of circumstances I create with an ease and joy, flowing with a creativity and energy that is boundless. These moments come and go, but they are what sustain my practice. How I create art is more important to me than what I create. While I am not always able to create with a perfect nondualistic process, when I look back at my work, it is those pieces that I have created through this process that hold my interest and that I am drawn to over and again.
The nineteenth sutra of the Pratyabhijnahrdayam states “In vyutthana which is full of the after-effects of Samadhi, there is attainment of permanent Samadhi by dwelling on one’s identity with cit (the universal, supreme consciousness) over and over again.” Essentially this sutra states that after you experience nondual reality you will once again return to ordinary consciousness, but that by bringing your awareness back again and again to that memory of nondualism you can eventually find your way to it permanently. As an artist, I am fortunate to sometimes create pieces of art which are tangible records of my moments of nondual realization. I can then use my art as a tool, reestablishing a beautiful cycle of creating and then bringing my awareness back to that state of being.