Philosophical Soap Box (Are You Ready for This?)
I once asked a question at a meditation retreat about habitually disassociating from an experience versus dissolving the barrier between self and other in an experience.
In the former, you feel like a fly-on-the-wall observer who is at once within and a part of the experience, but also psycho-spiritually disassociated from it for the sake of, in my case anyway, artistic possibilities. This is not so much done on purpose as it is done subconsciously. In other words, it is often a preferred mode of existing in the world for the person who behaves this way.
The latter is utterly spontaneous—a movement toward enlightenment according to some, though such progress can never be quantified—and it is not accompanied by a sense of self-awareness. It can “feel” like a literal thinning of the barriers between one body and another, the feet and the floor, the ear and the surrounding sounds. It can also “feel” like a literal thinning of the barriers between one person’s energy and another’s, or the line between one moment and the next.
After I asked my question, the teacher smiled and put his hand to his chin, then spoke: “You know, I get this question a lot from writers, you see, because writers are constantly observing.”
The room erupted in smile. While my friends around me on the meditation cushions knew I was a writer, the teacher, coincidentally, did not. He continued: “And there is a difference. It’s not that one is forced and the other is not. It’s not so black and white. All I can tell you is: experience this for yourself. Compare one to the other. See where things feel lighter or what feels measured and what feels neutral. See what feels groundless and what feels comfortable. You can still practice bringing about the circumstances for both experiences, but you’ll have to explore this for yourself.”
I remembered these words as I sat around a raucous dinner table full of friends tonight. At the craft school, we often eat dinner together after everyone is finished with work for the day and tonight the conversation was so lively, peculiar, laughable, and loving all at once that I found myself spinning from one conversation to the next. In one moment I was engaged and then in the next, I had slipped out—psycho-spiritually, at any rate—and began experiencing the dinner as a fly-on-the-wall. What people said meant nothing, but their bright faces, the tonal qualities of their voices, their physical gestures and buoyant laughter resonated with me so gracefully that I started to compose in my head.
And what I’m interested in the most is that moment of composition, that spark, or that initial giving way to the gesture of writing (for one can “write” without putting pen to paper…this is, in fact, how many writers survive from one breath to the next until they do find the time to sit down and actually, literally, write). That moment is such a precious little egg of experience and the more intimately I get to know it, the more I feel I know about how I have chosen to live my life.
There are two dominant emotions to this moment. The first is focused elation or precise abandon. This is where the actual words to write come from. The second is sorrow or mourning for what we leave behind in order to say what we need to say. We experience the former because we are still present within the experience (sitting around the table with friends) and we experience the latter because we know, deep down, that part of us has left the experience for the sake of another, louder calling within our own minds/hearts (that’s where the disassociating comes in).
And while I began this thought by initially stating that one experience can lead to artistic possibilities and the other can act as progress along the path toward enlightenment, it occurs to me now that all art seeks to transcend, and to transcend is to move away from one thing and toward a more enlightened view of another thing…which is to say that, in the end, the two approaches are similar because both seek a greater truth and use the human experience as the basis for such exploration.
No, I’m not saying all artists are enlightened. No, I do not believe that all art is pure. But yes, I do believe that the thing that compels artists to explore in the ways that they do, shares roots with the thing that compels humans to strive for spiritual freedom or enlightenment. This is, perhaps, why holy art was so undeniably idealized (and one might say, beyond criticism) for so many centuries and why the scope of art today is so vast, as our notion of “holy” has been both slandered and broadened exponentially.[And now I’m starting to talk about things I don’t know anything about so I’d better stop.]