Thursday, March 29, 2012

My Significant Other is the Kosmos : Part 5 Bodies in Motion: Entrainment, Entelechy and the Eros of Evolution

In light of the unusual events of that Sunday in May I was prompted to include in my art practice the guided chakra meditation that came with Layne Redmond's book. On the audio CD an unusual drum plays a regular, lilting, almost melodic rhythm as Redmond's voice guides the meditator through a visualization of the yantra figure for each chakra, locating the inner vision at the chakra's physical location in the body. Then with the rhythm of the drums a mantra associated with the chakra is chanted 16 times. This process is repeated for each of the 7 traditional Hindu chakras, working up the body from the base of the spine to the top of the head. The entire meditation takes about 30 minutes. After following this practice daily for a short period of time I began to notice something quite remarkable - my heartbeat began to fall into resonance with the drum and chanting rhythm. It became clear that my body had settled into a state of entrainment, something I had never consciously experienced before.

Entrainment is a scientific term which has slightly different meanings in each field of science, but is basically defined in physics as "a process whereby two oscillating systems which have different periods when functioning independently assume the same period when in proximity to each other". A curious example of this phenomenon used to occur in clock shops of yore. In the days when clocks often kept time through the use of a swinging pendulum, a clock shop merchant would start his day winding the clocks up and setting their pendulums into motion, one by one. By the time he finished there would be a cacophony of sound from the assembled mechanisms, each of the pendulums swinging back and forth - tick-tock-tick-tock - but out of sequence as the result of the merchant setting them into motion randomly. Astonishingly, within a few hours all of the clocks in the shop would be ticking together, the pendulums swinging in perfect unison. This is entrainment in action. And this is what had happened in the chakra meditation. I had consciously set my breathing into synchrony with the drumming through rhythmic chanting, yet my heart, over which I had no direct control, followed suit on its own - and of course my first thought was "AREN'T I SPECIAL!!"; but then one more time I remembered I didn't have a self, so once again the affectation didn't take. What did take, however, was the conscious awareness of the phenomenon of entrainment in the body. When I brought that awareness to my studio I was in for a surprise.

My method of art production has always had a strong component of physicality, and I've always considered the interactions of my body with materiality a vital aspect of my creative process. The work of the past few years involves a kind of weaving process - I always stand as I work, a spool of thread in one hand, the leading edge of the strand in the other. I lean to the left and hook the thread, pull back to the right and hook again, the thread sliding through my fingers as it plays out on the board. I reach up and down, shoulders rotating, wrist flexing, knees bending, fingers curling and straightening. All of this happens mostly subconsciously, barely registering within my awareness. An observer might comment that I look a bit like an orchestra conductor, or perhaps a strange animal immersed in some sort of ritual mating dance. This can go on for an hour without break, bobbing and weaving, twisting and stretching. The surprise I found was this - when in the flow, in the zone, my body is entrained. And it's in this state of entrainment, this bodily state of synchrony and resonance between all of the moving parts, that channels of the unconscious begin to loosen and expand, and I literally feel myself being pulled toward and through them. The entrained body becomes a vehicle that is no longer being driven solely by me, , but is in fact guided into the unknown by invisible hands. The question then becomes, "What is it that is pulling on me, guiding me?".

This is the real mystery of the creative process, especially for the one who is being processed. Further heightening the mystery is the realization upon completing the work that you often have no clear idea how that finished product got there, nor are you necessarily certain of its meaning, You remember the intent you brought, the decisions you made both micro and macro, the movements, the materials....all of it. Yet there you are in a place you never could have imagined, even a moment ago. You've tapped into something that you can't quite explain or demonstrate even to yourself, much less articulate sensibly to anyone else. The only proof you have is the finished work.

Thinking about this brought to mind a philosophy of thought that rose in the late 19th and early 20th century known as Vitalism, which posits that there is some non-physical, non-mechanical factor that drives life. An early 20th century proponent was an embryologist named Hans Driesch who saw in his research that there are aspects of the development of life that cannot be explained in simple mechanistic terms. He brought out the Greek term entelechy (pronounced en-TEL-uh-kee) to describe an inner process somehow inherent in life that makes use of material to develop form, yet is outside of the material domain. Needless to say, this kind of philosophy was and still is discounted by most scientists, who insist everything will eventually be reduced to physical processes; and who can blame them, given the spectacular successes of science in the past 300 years, and especially in the last 100. Yet it's my experience as an artist that entelechy might be closer to the mark as a way of describing the creative process - some non-physical, non-conscious, non-personal element that is contained in the process itself, and which drives and guides it through the vehicle of the artist. Something perhaps akin to...well..that element that drives and guides the eros of evolution - from rocks to roses to Rumi.

Little did I know as I contemplated this notion of entrainment and entelchy that the chakra meditation, even as it entrained my bodily processes, had tapped me into its own entelechy, and that something entirely unimagined and unexpected was in the making.

To be continued...

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Significant Other is the Kosmos : Part 4- Evolutionary Song, Or Just Dumb Luck?

"We have great powers that aren't being used because we don't believe in them" - Ralph Abraham, from Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness

Now I will proceed with a recounting of the events that led to that turning point on a Sunday morning in May; but to do so with clarity requires me first to lay out a context. That context is the very one that , in my view, every creative practice must confront - namely, what are the sources of creative inspiration, of novelty in the true sense of the term? How do we create something from nothing, not only in art but in the unfolding of each of our lives beyond biological, social, cultural or psychological expectations?

Obviously a big question, but for the purposes of this tale I'll narrow it down to a discussion of a controversial concept - synchronicity. I say controversial because in some intellectual circles this term is never uttered within the hallowed halls of the sanctified paradigm ( a paradigm I myself am inclined to inhabit from time to time). Yet I will posit that synchronicity in its many forms is a pivotal aspect of creativity, one that not only can't be ignored but, as a tool of creative practice, must be nurtured.

The originator of the popular meaning of this term was the psychiatrist Carl Jung, who brought it into prominence within the growing atmosphere of consciousness philosophy and exploration during the 20Th Century. In his private therapeutic practice, and in his own life, Jung noticed many curious coincidental arisings of symbols and events, so numerous and uncanny that he felt compelled to attempt to analyze and write about them His own fleshing out of the idea evolved over time, but can be best summarized as "a structure of reality that includes a principle of acausal connection which manifests in the form of meaningful coincidences". Being a psychiatrist, Jung was especially interested in how these uncanny coincidences seemed to be associated with subconscious archetypes - or deep symbols - in the psyches of so many of his patients, and at the striking usefulness in therapy of identifying and analyzing them. Most of us have had those moments of apparent synchronicities , so striking and unexpected and meaningful that they have a kind of numinosity, a glow of import.

As I understand it the criticism of the popularization of the concept (literally turned into a pop song at one point) comes from the observation that so many in this age of self-indulgence and psychological inflation take the appearance of these meaningful coincidences as somehow specifically manifested upon them from some divine source, as if the Cosmos was speaking directly to them. I would agree that this is a bit of an epidemic; call it post-modern narcissism or boomeritis or "The Me Generation". For many the appearance of a synchronicity amounts to a badge of honor - AREN'T I SPECIAL! - and that's as far, or as deep, as it goes. Thus, the term is easily ridiculed and ostracized as "magical thinking", hopelessly naive and regressive.

But wait, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater! The important aspect of a synchronicity is not its numinosity or ego-inflationary potential, but its apparent meaningfulness and its possible usefulness. I will suggest that meaningfulness can be coming straight out of the unconscious, whether from above or below, within or without. And if that is so then it may be valuable indeed, which is why Jung was so intrigued. If I am an artist, or a creator in any sense of the word, who is interested in exploring unconscious realms of the psyche and beyond, I damn well better listen when a synchronicity thrusts itself into my consciousness! In the visual art world we even have a term for one type of synchronicity - a happy accident. Most artists are quite aware of the necessity to tune one's antennae for happy accidents that open doors to new, unexpected and exciting possibilities.

Of course, if you still resist the term synchronicity, just call it morphic resonance... or dumb luck, if you please.

Back to my I was struggling to emerge from the depths of my existential crisis I found myself looking for guidance in the form of books. Not self-help books, but physics and biology, consciousness research, philosophy. I restarted a meditation practice as a way of training my focus and looking deep within. I restarted my art practice, which had been dormant for almost a year. I was intent on clearing the fog, more single-minded in that regard than I had ever allowed; a vision of suicide as warm and snugly will tend to have that effect on you.

I spent a lot of time in the Denver Public Library, devouring books and letting the library gods guide me wherever they saw fit. During one period of exploration concerning the mind/body problem I kept running into references to the chakras. When I thought about it I realized I knew about as much as the average college educated Westerner concerning chakras; that is, next to nothing. Something vague about energy centers, etheric bodies, chi or prana, all mostly incoherent to me. I decided I needed to know more, so I found a few books on the subject and got... something vague about energy centers, etheric bodies, chi or prana, all mostly incoherent to me. It didn't help that most of it was presented in the form of translations from esoteric and ancient Indian texts, which was only slightly easier than reading Sanskrit. Then I stumbled onto a little book written by an American who had spent time in India studying and now lived not far from me in Boulder. Her name is Layne Redmond, and she is now a world famous drummer among her other talents. The book was Chakra Meditation, and it was written in plain old American, a language I had familiarity with. This was a Saturday afternoon. I took it home and that evening sat down to read.

Besides an explanation of the physical and metaphorical meanings of the chakras, Redmond had supplied a group of color prints of painted symbols for each chakra, known as yantras. In what is a typical style, each chakra was represented by a lotus flower, each with its own number of petals and its own color. A yantra is a visual devise used in some meditation practices - the practitioner gazes at the yantra, contemplating its meaning and significance, often while chanting. As a visual artist I found these chakra symbols intriguing and was drawn to their simplicity and mystery.

As I said, Chakra Meditation is a slim book - less than 100 pages - and I read through most of it that evening, leaving the final chapters on specific meditation instruction for the morning when drowsiness would not interfere with the practice. And so it was on a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning in May that I sat in my favorite reading chair to finish. The meditation instructions were highly specific, and an audio cd that came with the book included a guided-by-drum chanting session designed to facilitate a focus on the actual location of the chakras in the body. However, it was such a glorious Sunday morning I decided the outdoors were where I needed to be, so I put the book down, rose stretching and gazed out my 3rd floor balcony window, only to see a yard sale on a lawn directly across the street.

To back up a little, I had just that month finally secured an art studio I could afford, and had that week finished moving my tools and benches and supplies into the space. I bought a small coffee maker for the studio, and had decided I would, rather than bring a mug from home, let chance guide me to one appropriate to my new studio. When I saw the yard sale it dawned on me that every yard sale in the world had coffee mugs, and that special mug just might be waiting for me there. In three minutes I was browsing through the numerous mugs offered for sale. I found one, and pleased with myself I looked about for my neighbor to ask the price. My eye was immediately caught by a string of small pennants tied between two trees, waving in the light morning breeze. There were seven of them in a string, maybe 8x8 inches each, very colorful. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks - THEY WERE THE CHAKRA YANTRAS!

Now remember, until Redmond's book I had never seen, nor had any knowledge of yantras. If I had seen these pennants even the day before they would have meant nothing to me. And remember this as well - I had just put that book down 3 minutes before! Call it what you will, I knew something very odd was at play here. I found my neighbor, inquired into a price for both mug and pennants, and for $1.50 I acquired them and marched home delighted.

I must admit, my first reaction was AREN'T I SPECIAL! It didn't last long - after all, I had no self to feel special about, so that one didn't stick. But I knew there was meaning here, and that there was something to explore, and that an unforeseen and unimagined door had just cracked open. Where it would lead I had no idea, but I'm an artist, and if you're not adventurous in that pursuit you'll get nowhere. And so, in the months ahead I gently pushed open the door and stepped through......

To be continued....

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Significant Other is the Kosmos Part 3: Is Evolution the New Metaphysics?

Marching onward into the fog - sounds a bit daunting, even a little terrifying. We think of phrases like "a foggy mind", or "the fog of war"; we think of being lost without bearings, no visible landmarks to guide us. But fog can be a teacher; let me relate to you an anecdote concerning fog.

I grew up in Northern California, land of the giant Redwoods and - you guessed it- fog. From June until October thick ocean fog presses the shoreline from San Diego to Eureka, tumbling over hills and rushing inland through openings like the Golden Gate at San Francisco Bay. Anyone who has visited San Francisco for summer vacation probably remembers that rude awakening when, dressed in shorts and tank top and sandals on a trek to the sunny California beaches, they encountered the icy grip of wet, clinging fog that never quite burns off, but at best recedes to a pale grey haze. Another peculiarity of weather in California is the dry summer - from June until October it's likely not a drop of rain will fall on the state west of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Because of this much of California is, for all intents and purposes, a desert.

And yet, there are those vast forests of giant redwood trees, the largest trees in the world - hardly a desert inhabitant, one would think. How do they survive four to six months a year, year after year, with no rain? This question had never risen in my mind until one thick foggy morning I took a stroll in a redwood grove just east of Oakland. As the trail meandered through a particularly thick stand of trees I suddenly found myself pelted with a steady, persistent stream of large globs of water. I stopped, and all around me I could hear what sounded like a light but steady rainfall. When I looked up I discovered the source - somehow, the peculiar shape of the redwood needles managed to capture moisture from the fog and condense enough of it to create a small stream of water that ran down to the tips of the branches, light drops falling from each branch in a steady drip, drip, drip. The ground under my feet was wet and soggy. Then it hit me - the redwood trees had found a way to water themselves!

They adapted. A Neo-Darwinian would say it came about by the process of random mutation and natural selection over thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of years. But if you stand back, way back, and just look at the process and results, you'll be struck by how astonishingly CREATIVE this solution is. One might say, in this light, that the process of evolutionary adaptation seems to be saturated in a kind of creative desire - in the case of redwoods, some elemental desire for water resulting in a novel, creative solution to overcoming environmental obstacles toward satisfying that desire. And think of this - how persistent were they? Thousands and thousands of years working at the problem trying this, trying that, morphing slowly but always, always in the direction desire dictated, until finally.... no rain? No problem, we'll make our own rain. It's as if this small expression of the Cosmos just shrugged and said, "if ya gotta lemon, make lemonade".

This desire, this creative eros, seems to penetrate not only the evolution of life on this planet, but in fact the entire cosmic evolutionary stream. If we, for the moment, accept the notion of the Big Bang 14 billion years ago as the initiator of this grand evolutionary process, what do we see? From pure, matterless energy to the first hydrogen atoms, to helium, and on through the periodic table, slowly but inexorably coming into being from nothing. Then the clouds of gas composed of those early elements forming into stars, solar systems, galaxies. Then somehow, against all odds, here on Earth (and probably elsewhere) life appears - single cells to multi cells to organisms arising out of the primordial soup. Eventually those organisms migrate to land, culminating in 100 milliion years of domination by the dinosaurs, then a meteor crashes into the Gulf of Mexico and nothing bigger than a chicken survives, allowing the rise of the mammals, then primates,, beings apparently for the first time capable of self-reflection. All of this a long, long series of absolutely novel creative leaps.

Could it be that, even in us today, when we find within us that urge to create - be it in the arts or sciences, in building or inventing, in making babies or making lasagna, in doodling or dancing - we are tapping into that same creative eros that has driven the entire evolutionary impulse of the Cosmos from the beginning? And if that's true, could it be that we are right now the leading edge of something much, much bigger and grander than our petty personal experiences? So it seemed to me on that dark night when my self disappeared and something else arose in the fog.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My Significant Other is the Kosmos Part 2 - Gratitude for Fog

It's my intention in this blog series to follow two parallel paths - one, my ideas and speculations on the creative process and its place in our time; the other a personal story of an unusual series of events that were catalytic to a transformation in my own consciousness development. Ultimately the paths converge, for creative expression in all of its forms is, in my experience, both an expression and a vehicle of transformation guided by the evolutionary impulse; it is where evolution is happening right here, right now. Darwin had it only partially right.

To introduce the personal story, I spoke of a Sunday in May, and indeed that was a catalytic moment; but there is an important background context that I'll lay out first. This was a time of
the second, most extreme existential crisis I have experienced. What I mean by existential crisis is this - every value, every belief, every constant that I had relied upon to define my sense of self, of my place in the world, of my very being had been stripped bare and viscerated, reduced to heaps of absurdity and chaos. The details are unimportant. Just know that I was staring out over an abyss and there was...nothing. All meaning gone, all purpose gone, not even a glimmer of light or life. The only experience left was that of pain and terror, and even these were ephemeral phantoms that dissolved as soon as I tried to grasp them. This was a massive ripping away of egoic identity that left me utterly abandoned.

Lest you think I was feeling sorry for myself....well, ok, I was. But this was deeper and darker than self-pity alone; it was terrifying. Ironically, the real source of that terror was the absolute transparent awareness that this hell was of my own creation. There was no angry God, no government, no institution, no social structure, not a single individual on the face of the planet I could pin it on. I was radically, irrevocably responsible for all of it, and even as I had a pretty clear idea how I got there, I had no idea how to get out. I was Dante at the Gates of Hell standing alone, not a Virgil in sight to take my hand and guide me through the depths.

(As an aside, during this time I had a conversation with a young friend who was in the midst of her own existential crisis - very different in content, very similar in quality. At one point in our talk she made the comment "Suddenly, suicide starts to look all kinda warm and fuzzy". I knew exactly was she was talking about.)

So there I was, standing between terrifying nothingness and soft and fuzzy, literally paralyzed. However, eventually something happened as I took on that radical responsibility for everything in my predicament. That realization, when I finally and completely accepted it, opened a tiny window for me to slip through. There was a nagging voice whispering in my ear constantly, hissing "get over yourself... get over yourself...get over yourself". Finally in frustration I retorted " But I don't have a self anymore!!!". And that, my friends, was the moment I realized that it was all paradoxically, stupidly, sublimely hilarious... and that it was time to cowboy-up and march onward into the fog. Straight toward a Sunday in May.

To be continued...