Category Archives: seeing

Bare attention, interconnection and the artist Will Noble

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.

Phoenix-Will-Noble-ptg

Phoenix, oil painting by Will Noble

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.

will-noble-circles-closeupThe 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.

Freedom to See Fear & Its Manifestations Clearly

Recently we discussed how fear is believed to be useful, but in every case we could come up with it was either useless or harmful. We talked about how it is contagious and is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I shared a little bit of how through the regular practice of meditation we eventually relax into a spacious fearlessness that is not acting out as a daredevil, seeking danger, but is opening to a deeper truth about the nature of the world and life itself.

In my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, I talk a lot about fear, saying that all negative emotions arise out of fear, as all positive emotions arise out of love. This book was written in deep meditation, and people reading it resonate with it because it rises up from the same source of universal wisdom that they themselves have access to when they are able to quiet down and listen in.

This book was written in the early 1990’s, before I began to study Buddhism, so do not take it as a transmission of Buddhist philosophy, which in general I try to share here with my own take on it. But Sylvia Boorstein, Buddhist teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, many years ago called this book ‘jargon-free dharma,’ so apparently it isn’t un-Buddhist! Which makes sense, since when I came to Spirit Rock and the Buddhist teachings, it was like coming home.

I haven’t read or heard anything in Buddhism to suggest that fear is the root of all negative emotion, but there is a valuable Buddhist-style question contained in the concept. Whenever a negative emotion arises, we can ask, “What am I afraid of?” and find a very useful answer.

Last week when discussing the self-fulfilling nature of fear, one student mentioned a jealous boy friend from her distant past. His jealousy was rooted in his fear of losing her, his fear that he was not enough in some way to keep her. So it’s easy to see that jealousy is rooted in fear.

It’s not surprising that so many of us feel we are not enough somehow, given how saturated our lives are with messages that tell us we could be so much more if only we would use this or that product. We remind ourselves that these messages are not about us but simply corporate efforts to reap profits, but it is very challenging to let go of the belief that has been so long instilled. When this message comes from an individual, if we pause to think about it, we realize this individual has been duped into believing that they are not enough, and are trying to make themselves enough by the unskillful means of making us feel unworthy in comparison.

As we come into more steady consciousness, these kind of messages are seen for what they are and begin to fall away, or at least loosen and clarify. When we see clearly, we see that we at our core are fully acceptable, worthy of being loved, and if we open to it, we can sense that there is a universal loving-kindness that loves us, with a love that does not have to be earned. When we can fully relax into that understanding, quite quickly we can see our patterns of behavior and belief that have been disrupting our lives and probably the lives of those around us. We are able to see these patterns of behavior as misguided attempts to gain what we believed we were lacking. We can see they arose out of a fear that we were not enough.

Once we access that spaciousness, that Right View (see post of 1/14/09), then when these left-over beliefs and behaviors show up again, we can acknowledge them, as Buddha acknowledged Mara the tempter again and again under the Bodhi tree the night of his great awakening. “Oh Mara, I know you.”

“Oh pattern, I know you,” we can say to an addiction, a reaction, an erosive belief. “I know you, and in knowing you I am not afraid of you. I know you, and in knowing you, I know you are not me. I know you, and in knowing you, I can be curious about you. I can sit with the experience of you and learn all your ways, so that I will recognize you as Mara even sooner next time we meet. Not so that I can run the other way, but so that I can greet you by your true name.”

Whatever we encounter, we can remind ourselves that this is not the only ‘voice’ present for us. When I fall into an old habitual pattern of circling around to graze in the kitchen, I can open to the inner spaciousness of my mind and recognize that there is more than one ‘voice’ present, more than just the “ooh, ooh, yummy, yummy, gimme gimme” chant. I can take a relaxing breath, slow my pace, and open to an inner wisdom that questions whether I am really all that hungry for food right now, whether I wouldn’t find a walk in the garden or a phone call to a loved one even more satisfying. The first time I recognized that there was not a monologue but a dialog inside me, I was amazed. It opened such possibilities for breaking the chain of my habitual behavior. But that wise voice is so quiet and calm, I really do have to slow down and listen in.

When we feel a negative emotion arising and we think to ask, ‘What am I afraid of?” we have a tool for coming in to the present moment. We can sense into the body to see how this fear is manifesting itself. When we find a particular sensation – a tight chest, jaw or a pain somewhere, for example – we can let that sensation tell us how it feels. It may speak of sadness, loss, anger, depression, confusion, impatience, judgment, envy, jealousy, etc. Whatever emotion it tells is fear mixed in with story. As we sit with the sensation and the emotion, keeping our attention as much as possible in the present moment, the emotion gets clear of the story and appears as the pure fear it is.

Once we have touched pure fear we can hold it in an open loving embrace, just as we would hold a terrified child, with great kindness and compassion. If we try to nurture ourselves when we have only touched the sadness or the anger, we will most likely get involved in the story they embrace. Instead of simple kindness and compassion, we will probably use excuses, explanations, accusations, justifications and dramatic plots. None of this is useful. It just entangles our thinking mind in a tighter knot. When we relax, breathe, and sense in to the physical sensation of the fear, we can give it our full loving attention and acceptance in a quiet spacious deeply loving way that is transformative, without judgment or expectation.

Given the unconditional love of metta, fear may soften its grip on us and pass away. For now. We accept that this is a life long condition, awakening to what is true in this moment frees us enough to see clearly. But if we believe, ‘ah ha, now I’ve conquered fear,’ we get sucked into yet another delusion, believing ourselves to be immune to fear in all its forms. Instead it is more useful to be open and curious to whatever arises, to develop meditative techniques that enable us to more easily access the present moment, where we see clearly. We remember that Mara visited the Buddha all through his life, even though he was awakened. His awakening was not being free of Mara, but being free to see Mara in all its many aspects, and to hold it in an open embrace of curiosity and compassion.