In a recent article in Tricycle magazine, Cynthia Thatcher looked at George Seurat’s neo-impressionist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, as an example of the nature of our interconnection. In her rich exploration, she said that her meditation teacher, Achan Sobin Namto, once wrote, “If we could focus precisely on the present moment…the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception.”
If that flies right over your head, you are not alone. But let’s look closer. Her sharing of her experience with Seurat’s dots reminded me of the art of my painter husband Will Noble, whose works are almost all made up of little dots or circles. He draws and then paints each circle over a period of many months — a meditation in itself. But instead of getting caught up in the whys and hows of his process, I’d like to focus on the finished painting.
In class I had my students take a few minutes to choose one of Will’s paintings (our home is also his studio/gallery) and really look at the painting, first from a distance and then up close. They seemed to enjoy the exercise.
From a distance, people often mistake Will’s paintings for photographs. They note its subject matter, composition and colors, and have whatever response they have to what is represented — usually an intimate waterscape.
But if they take a moment to step closer, they have a surprise in store.
The landscape dissolves into patterns of circles, each circle less than a quarter inch in diameter, unique yet similar to its neighbors. The closer the viewer gets, the more abstract the painting becomes. The overall image – the initially recognizable subject matter – disappears. Then the viewer steps back, further and further, until the image reassembles itself, coming back into a recognizable pattern that can be labeled as ‘cascade’ or ‘pond’. If the viewer is really paying attention, they may never look at the world the same way again.
When we look at anything, there is a nano-second of bare attention before the mind labels what we are looking at. In that brief but potentially expansive mental space we are just looking. For example, I just glanced out the window, and automatically registered ‘mountain’. All the things I know about mountains in general and that mountain in particular — all the memories of times I have walked it, camped on it, scattered my mother’s ashes on it — are all activated almost instantly. Almost. If I really pay attention, before registering ‘mountain’ I might allow myself to notice colors, shapes, textures, values, light and shadow — all primary concerns of a painter. The artist Chester Arnold once said that he painted in order to be able to see in that way. “If I could see that way all the time, I wouldn’t need to paint.” I don’t totally believe him, because there are many reasons why a painter paints, but it was a very insightful comment. Can the rest of us see that way? Can we give a little space to seeing, hearing, etc. before needing to label and file away all the sensory phenomena that comes our way?
But wait, isn’t seeing color, shape and texture just another way of labeling? ‘Green, round, rough.’ These are all observations based on learned labels for experiencing the world around us. Is that really as bare as our attention can get? In Will’s paintings composed of little molecular shapes, we are seeing even deeper. We are reminded that elementally we are all composed of tiny infinitesimal bits of life coming together in a seemingly infinite ways to shape what we believe ourselves and the world around us to be.
In the last post, I shared the story of the Buddha meditating under the bodhi tree, and his second insight upon awakening: that anyone can awaken. But what was his first insight? Everything is interconnected. There is no separation anywhere.
Today’s science completely supports this fact, but we tend to forget it. We are caught up in the illusion of separation, and although it can be useful for practical matters in our lives, not being able to see its illusory nature causes us and those around us all manner of suffering.
If we practice this kind of real seeing we will arrive at real understanding — how there is no ‘other’. When we notice a habituated pattern of other-making in our thoughts, we can challenge it. We can step a little closer and practice bare attention. We can step back and see the amazing patterns of life that we had previously interpreted as solid separate objects. How liberating, how wondrous, how comforting to recognize the intrinsic nature of all being.
And if you are in the Bay Area and would like to see Will’s paintings for yourself, contact him.