Life as Art

The philosopher Deleuze says something very profound about nature. He has this way of inferring something about the creative potency of life from what life creates.

For example, when we say “nature” most people think of trees, rivers, mountains, jungle, savanna. We say machines, gadgets, buildings and the like are not natural. But where did those things come from? In the evolutionary process, the amoebas became aquatic organisms, became land organisms, became humans, who made machines.

We think machines aren’t nature because we think we aren’t nature. But this is something the American transcendentalists, and more recent thinkers like Watts and McKenna, loved to point out: We are nature, too. We are life too. We are existence too. We are not a separate process; we are woven of the same universal fabric.

And machines are an extension of the same nature-process. If Deleuze was taking a walk through the city with you, it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic of him to say, “You see all these bikes, cars… metallic, silicon things? That’s nature. It’s on the same spectrum as the rivers, forests, mountains.”

So the next step is to say that it says something about life that it produces these mechanical things. In Deleuze’s philosophy, he thinks of “life” in the abstract. He infers a creative principle, a creative force, “behind”—or more exactly, immanent in—all the manifestations and creations of life.

So he’ll say that nature is machine-like right from the get-go. That’s why, in Anti-Oedipus, he and Guattari (his co-author) describe the human body in terms of “organ-machines.” “Everything is machines,” they say. Our eyes are machines; our tongues, hands, noses are machines—each with specific functions. Those organ-machines ‘hook up’ to external machines. (I’ve got my hands, eyes, brain -machines hooked up to a computer-machine right now.)

Now, if Deleuze can reason like this about machines, we can also do that with art. Life produces machines through humans, but life also produces sculpture, cinema, oil on canvas, music, literature—and the aesthetic “aura” that emanates from these things—through humans. So what does that say about life?

Let’s back up for a moment. Deleuze’s way of looking at life’s manifestations as machine-like, while perfectly valid, is still a rather “left-hemisphere” (leftward) way of looking at it. Here, I’m using “left hemisphere” in the way that I’ve heard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor and meditation master Reggie Ray talk about it. For them, the left-side of our brain is associated with linear thinking, analytic thinking, intellectual dissection, conceptual compartmentalization, language, logic, reason, and making mental maps. It can see life in terms of a million parts, and appreciate the astounding complexity of it all.

That’s wonderful. However, as Taylor and Ray both point out, there’s limitation that comes with that. The conscious beings (you, me, we) that see life through the left hemisphere can forget that life isn’t actually like that. It isn’t broken up into a million pieces. To our left hemisphere, it appears that way. But that’s just perception—just one perspective or way of seeing it.

So Taylor and Ray direct their listeners back to the right hemisphere and (in Ray’s vocabulary) the “soma.” For Taylor, what’s to be found there is what she calls “nirvana.” And for Ray, he simply speaks about a direct experience of life, a direct acquaintance with the territory (not the mental maps), that everyone must experience for themselves.

The idea I’d like to share today, is that when we shift out of this left hemisphere way of looking at these things, outside the leftward slant, into a more right hemisphere perspective, life’s manifestations appear as artistic expressions. All of them. And not just the solid “things,” but also the processes, relationships and events that unfold in time.

In other words, what it says about life, that life produces art through humans, is: life itself is artistic. Life is an artist—life in the sense of the creative principle or force immanent in the creations we see all around us.

It’s not just that we experience beauty, or that we can call everything art, or that this is a “nice” perspective to take. That’s all relatively true, but the profound thing is, art is in the nature of things. We can experience life as art, like we experience Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and that comes with a feeling of beauty, of intelligence, of meaning. You can’t necessarily put it into words, but who needs to? It’s your experience.

And what better way to get us in this particular mindset than art?—our art? …I was inspired to write this post by watching a film called Synecdoche, which blurs the line between life and theatrical performance. The film Birdman does the same thing, in a different way. Yet another film, Waking Life, blends film, dreams and waking experiences, both in its “rotoscope” animation and philosophical dialogue. All these films compare life to artistic expression such that the division between the two begins to vanish.

Perhaps it was only imagined, to begin with.

And it’s not just films. Before there was Beethoven, there was the symphony of a thousand insects in a swamp at nighttime. The whistle of the wind, the chirping of birds. Before the painting on the wall, the painting of a human face, smiling. Or crying—tragedy. Written alongside the visible scripts in our books, there are the invisible scripts of our lives. The most incredible stories ever told, but told in the living of them. All of this is life’s artistic expression.

…To circle back, then, to our point of origin: We are life, inseparable from its dynamic, creative force. So we, too, are artists, not just of what we normally refer to as “art,” but artists of our lives. Artists of our actions, words, decisions, relationships, emotions, aspirations, beliefs, perspectives…

We do not merely behold the creation; we are creators as well. When we see the art all around us, being expressed in each moment, and embrace our artistic identity as one with life—then, joy arises.

Revolutions in Philosophy

In the 18th century the German philosopher Immanuel Kant caused a big shift in philosophical thinking – so much so that people have called it a “philosophical revolution.”

Philosophers before Kant were  trying to find the truth either by analysis of experience with the rational mind (empiricists) or by logical deduction with the mind (rationalists), assuming reality was, somehow, intrinsically rational.

One way of telling the history of Western philosophy is to say that Kant took the middle road. Our experience is already affected by the mind, he said, before we do any analysis. Our perception is affected by a ‘mind filter,’ if you will, such that we see things as happening in sequence and such that the world has a spatial layout. Space and time, in other words, are not “out there” but rather ‘projected’ by the mind onto experience – the mind “in here.”

[ Unfiltered world “mind filter” → Your Experience ]

Kant’s logic makes a lot of sense. Would anyone deny that their mind is absent for any experience? Would anyone deny that they constantly perceive space and time? So it’s quite possible that the (ever-present) mind ‘projects’ (ever-present) space and time.

. . . Yet I don’t present Kant’s philosophy to argue for it, but to contrast it with other perspectives that are appealing for very different reasons.

What’s really fascinating about all the Western philosophical canon—pretty much from Ancient Greece to the present day—is that you’ll hardly ever find a firm distinction between witness-awareness and the (thinking) mind which is so crucial to Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, for example, and so often implied in contemporary ‘non-dual’ talks.

This is bizarre, considering how important that distinction is in the philosophies (or just “teachings”) where it’s found. Yet it’s absent in most of Western philosophy. It’s there for some of the ancient philosophers, and maybe for Hegel and a few others, but for the most part it’s missing.

Another way of putting the point is to say that most of the Western philosophers weren’t (& aren’t) familiar with mindfulness. (Ironic, since they talk about the mind so much!) If being mindful involves watching thought from the point of view of a silent, witnessing awareness, then most of the thinkers in the West weren’t  being mindful, it seems, but were experiencing thoughts from the point of view of… other thoughts. Hence the phrase, “lost in thought.”

It just doesn’t seem plausible, to me, that many of these philosophers could’ve invested so much time in writing their tomes of philosophy, if they had previously made this distinction in their experience; that is, forayed into mindfulness. . . . Why? Because thought seems generally less important from the point of view of witness-awareness. It’s like, for the Western philosophers, thoughts were arbiters of truth. For them, you could say what’s true in a sentence! However, from the point of view of witness-awareness, a thought is just something that happens. It comes and goes like a bird chirps.

To introduce mindfulness to philosophy changes the whole game. It changes the game because with mindfulness comes the possibility of experiencing amazingly different states of consciousness. Such an introduction could be the beginning of a whole new field of inquiry, where what state of consciousness we’re talking about is of chief importance, and the specific concepts and language we use are secondary.

It’s a wild claim, but someday, perhaps, we’ll look back on the Western philosophical tradition, and someone will say, “Ah, yes, so many of them were taking as their starting point a primarily rational state of consciousness; hence their confusions and difficulties. Now we can see that that is one particular manifestation of consciousness, yet there are so many more to talk about, to take as a starting point!” (William James may have been hinting at this in his Varieties of Religious Experience.)

Moreover, to make mindfulness and states of consciousness more of a factor—much more—in contemporary philosophy, would be to, simultaneously, align philosophy more with the ancient conception of “philosophy as a way of life,” rather than the current notion of philosophy in the popular mind, where it’s impractical, boring, and irrelevant.

For the ancients, philosophy was something lived. It had to do with action, experience, aspiration… transformation of the soul. That was real philosophy. And by my stars the version we’ve inherited is, in large part, an empty shell of what it once was.

What if philosophy was, once again, an art form? Something with which you co-created, by the powers within you, a much deeper and richer experience of reality?—full of wonder, wisdom, love, fulfillment, peace, connectivity, magnanimity, true enthusiasm?—everything we yearn for in our heart of hearts?

That idea of philosophy has been lost, for the most part. We owe it to ourselves to reclaim it.

. . . So, to circle back, Kant’s problem was that he was too much in his head. (We philosophers can sense this about ourselves, but we try to ignore it.) His philosophy’s logical structure is exquisite, yet, it only serves rational consciousness, in the end.

A new philosophical revolution would ‘go beyond’ rationality altogether. Thus, it would be a re-invention of philosophy, drawing on the inspiration of the ancients, but not being limited by them, either. . . If Kant’s logic was to infer how a mind, present for all experience, filters and synthesizes experiences, then this new philosophy would notice how experience is filtered and synthesized by the state which consciousness inhabits—even the experience of a “mind.” (Not to mention space and time.)

Philosophy’s field of inquiry would become, not merely the bodies of information uncovered by science and logical analysis, but all experiential information available to consciousness in the different states and “worlds” (realms & planes) it can enter. Once again, all our truth claims would be called into question, as no perspective can be ultimate, so long as there are more experiences available to consciousness.

The invitation, then, is to lay down one’s identity as a thinker and opt, instead, to be an explorer of consciousness. The words of the poet Rumi come to mind:

Out beyond ideas of wrong and right,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

The “Yes” to Life

I wanted to share something that’s amazing to me. It’s something, I’d imagine, that everyone knows at a deep intuitive level, yet seems to forget at some point, swept up in the long “blustery day” of life.

There’s a speech given at the end of the 2001 film Waking Life which is really astonishing:

 

…Actually, there’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity. And it’s an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, ‘Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?’ And we’re all saying, ‘No thank you. Not just yet.’ And so time is actually just this constant saying ‘No’ to God’s invitation…. there’s just this one instant, and that’s what we’re always in.”

And then she tells me that actually this is the narrative of everyone’s life. That, you know, behind the phenomenal difference, there is but one story, and that’s the story of moving from the “no” to the “yes.” All of life is like, “No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.” then ultimately it’s, “Yes, I give in. Yes, I accept. Yes, I embrace.” I mean, that’s the journey. I mean, everyone gets to the “yes” in the end, right?

So there’s kind of two sides to what the speaker’s saying. On the one hand he’s saying that there’s only one instant, one moment–this moment. That’s something that anyone can see if they just ‘stay with’ their present experience. The retaliation is, “no, there are a bunch of other moments. I was just in one and now I’m in another.” But when you were in that “past” moment, it was this moment. And when the “future” arrives it will be this moment. We only know about past and future because we can think about them. In other words, past and future appear as thoughts, also appearing in this moment. It is always Now.

So that’s one thing. On the other hand he’s talking about the relationship that we have with the one moment or the Now. And he’s saying that we say “No” to it. We have a problem with it. We have a story about how it should be different. We have a ‘need’ to get to a future moment that is more desirable. We have things about ourselves that we haven’t accepted–seemingly can’t accept–and things about the past that we haven’t come to terms with.

Finally he suggests, on behalf of the woman that spoke to him, that “this is the narrative of everyone’s life.” Wow, that’s quite a statement. Everyone is saying “No” until they say “Yes.” (It’s not an outward “No.” It’s an inner No that we hold in our minds in the form of rejection of ourselves as we are and of life as it is, of our narratives that it should be otherwise, etc.) And the “Yes”–to life, to existence, to this moment–is the liberating force, the momentum that ushers you into “heaven.” Heaven on Earth.

The amazing thing I wanted to share is that I find this teaching of “saying Yes” in so many spiritual and philosophical teachings, it’s remarkable, even uncanny how so many fingers are pointing to the same truth.

It’s important that the Waking Life speaker says “Yes, I accept,” “Yes, I embrace,” because those are the words that are used in many teachings. “Yes” in this context is also called “acceptance” and “letting go” and “allowing to be” and “letting go of struggle” and “letting be.” There are so many codes, so many ways of saying it. But what’s the truth, the feeling, that all these words are pointing to? Isn’t that what matters?

We know on an intuitive level that ‘allowing life to be’ or ‘not resisting’ or ’embracing’ life brings, immediately, a kind of peace and stillness. Even if we aren’t completely at peace, even if we let go of one thing, we feel it.

Moreover, if we merely imagine what it’s like to be in a welcoming, non-resistant relationship with life, where we aren’t arguing with it anymore (in our minds), then we can feel in our imagination that it would be peaceful.

What does one let go of, that gives rise to this peace? Everything that constitutes the “No,” all of which exists in the mind. What’s left is the “Yes.” Thus, ‘letting go’ and ‘saying yes’ are two sides of the same coin

The truth of “letting go” seems to pop up everywhere–in all of Buddhism, in Christianity (esp. the mystics), Sufi Islam, in the Toltec lineage, the Taoist scriptures, the Hindu scriptures, the teaching of Alan Watts, David Hawkins, Adyashanti, Gangaji, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (the sacred “yes to life”)…everywhere. It’s remarkable.

But it doesn’t really matter who says it, or even how they say it, so long as the message is heard, and people can experience the freedom in their own lives.

One thing about the practice of letting go is worth mentioning in particular, which is that it’s really simple. It’s been said, “the spiritual path is a simple path.” That is the truth if our practice is just letting go and letting go. It’s like breathing out…relaxing…trusting. This is life as it is. It doesn’t need to be changed. I don’t need to fight it.

…Despite my efforts, a truth like this can’t be conveyed so much through writing, as it can be through a “transmission of presence.” And yet, isn’t the transmission all around us?–in the peace of nature?–the sunshine illuminating the clouds, the river water undulating slowly, the leaves falling in autumn twilight.

It’s all calling, inviting us: let go…be free…say YES!

“Homecoming”

These poems are inspired by life, by the spiritual journey.

 

“Who will catch you when you fall?”

Who will catch you,

when you fall?

Yesterday’s freedom

is today’s prison wall

By letting go,

and letting go,

you’ll come to know

how deep is your faith

that ‘this is The Place’

and something will catch you

when you fall

 

“Gratitude”

I kneel by the water’s side,

whisper to the still tide,

this my soul confides

in life:

“Thank you”

 

And this stream of memory,

this flow, where we inter-be,

through an act of alchemy,

is revealed as “Life Divine”

—no more will I call it “mine”

 

“Silence”

Before any word

is spoken, it shines

right out of your eyes;

Cease to talk and be

bright as a star!

 

“Rooftops”

I was dancing on the rooftops,

laughing,

my heart restored to joy,

Knowing it was all around me

and always would be

 

“Homecoming”

In the beginning I could not see you

in the end I could

in the middle I doubted

whether I ever would

But you were there from the start,

seeing me blind,

There in the middle,

watching my mind,

Here at the end,

happy it’s time,

I come home