A Tribute to Art

There are all types of things in the universe that, when paid proper attention to, inspire a sense of wonder and admiration. I first noticed this with the question. Literally, a question, is an amazing thing. The way a sentence is structured and given an upward inflection towards the end makes a listener go into an information gathering, structuring, and verbalizing process, culminating in an answer. That whole process is really incredible and interesting, and it all happens with a question. When did questions arise? How did they arise? Who asked the first question in history? What happened to a group that didn't have questions? Where would we be?

Anyway, there are tons of these things in the world to ponder and admire and my small mind can only fathom of few of these things, although I think with more time and attention, we can notice more. Today's tribute is to art.

I have my own definition of art, and it comes from my experience, oddly enough, in meditation. Everyone can have their own definition of art, and arguing about which one is "right" seems to be a completely futile exercise, since we're ultimately just talking about which word gets attached to which experience or thing, rather than asking what the thing is and how it operates. That's a much more interesting question.

I first understand art as a process of letting go, although I didn't really know it was art yet. In meditation, a person surrenders their need to fight things, especially the mind itself, and they make peace, guiding subtly using wisdom and care. In my practice, I'd often have an urge to write after sitting. The writing was usually a poem (or sorts--I'm not a very good poet) about breathing, letting go, and the emotional qualities of sitting silently. The strange thing was that the quality of writing seemed different. It was almost like the pen was dancing in my hand, writing what was important. I'd even doodle a little, just shapes, but it was a non-judgmental, flowing kind of drawing, where the pen strokes all worked in harmony. It didn't look like anything really interesting, but when I looked at it, I could recognize that it was written in a special conflict-free state of mind.

Later, I began designing and creating things visually. The struggles of creative types were real for me: feeling like I wasn't in the zone, nothing was clicking, everything seemed boring and formulaic. But then there were small moments where, with the help of music, maybe tea, maybe some exhaustion, and the right mood, I was able to drop everything--every need to create something great, every expectation I put on myself. My thoughts and ego dissolved somehow into the music and space I was in, and my hand, my mouse, my mind, all started to dance and create things. The things would get better the more I learned how to design and build things.

And this brings us to the essence of art. Art isn't just about the person, it's about moving out of the way of things and letting them do their own thing with your guidance. The materials in your hand, whether they be the materials of a fine artist, a sculptor, a writer, a designer, a musician, come together at their own pace, with their own force. The artist's job is to guide them without forcing them in a direction they aren't naturally moving.

A good analogy is with a tether ball. As the ball swings around the pole, another person can choose to apply a certain degree of force that's consistent with the direction the ball's already moving, or orthogonal to it, but if he or she goes against hit, hitting it in the opposite direction, they're be in conflict with it.

Aikido is another good example. Aikido literally means together + spirit + tao (the way). In Aikido, the defender recognizes the natural motion of a person (the aggressor) and joins it, rather than fighting against it. The defender applies force that complements the force of the aggressor, or guides it in a direction that's consistent with its original trajectory, much like a person hitting the tether ball without opposing its momentum, but remaining consistent with it.

The same is true of art. The materials have a natural tendency, and the artist's job is to move with them, not against them--not in conflict. This happens in the art state of mind because by definition, that state of mind is free of conflict (or has minimal conflict in it). Conflict can't live in that space. The artist just helps guide the materials into their form.

Zooming out one more step, the process of art is really about harmony. It's about man living in harmony with the universe, not against it, but still participating. Art is harmonious joint cooperation in the universe. You might think of it as an existential teamwork. It's a rare thing in today's world to witness true art because people are so wrapped up in the consequences of their lives that they live in constant conflict with the universe, thinking they can beat it into submission to get what they want. Sometimes they do, for sure. But it has an ugly quality to it.

When we see people in harmony with the universe, we can instantly recognize the quality of true beauty that it possesses, not just in the process, but also in the product. We can take it a step further and make it personal. Finding harmony with the universe is our general mission in life because of the peace of mind it creates, and more importantly, because when you have it, you realize its meaning and power. This isn't something that can be argued logically; it's based on experience and everyone can experience it.

I believe, based on my experiences, that unhappiness comes from living in conflict with the general way of things, the opposite of Aikido, you could say. The tricky thing is, when people try and climb out of their suffering, they may very well start fighting with their own existence, more specifically, with the moment they're in and the qualities of that moment--their thoughts, emotions, surroundings, with others and their imagined thoughts about them. That creates more unhappiness in the long run because it keeps them in conflict.

The answer isn't just giving up, although giving up helps orient and clarify thinking and intention sometimes. I think the answer is a sort of mental Aikido--handling our disappointments and heartache with wisdom and clarity, without fighting against it. Those thinking styles can be cultivated in meditation, but need to be brought out into life to really work. With mental aikido, one can discover ways of redirecting threatening mental and emotional forces and thereby neutralize them, restoring a sense of calm and relaxation.

The same principles apply to restoring beauty and harmony in our outer world, whether we decide to fix a broken political system or social system, help a sick person or nation, or otherwise.

In essence, we are bringing the practice of art into our inner lives, our outer lives, extending it past the studio and past the meditation hall. We're making our lives, inner and outer, into works of art.