Tuesday, August 11, 2020

My Significant Other is the Kosmos: Darker Than Any Mystery - Part 8, Third Movement

I want to quickly clarify something here.  This blog is not about politics, nor will it ever be.  However, to keep the sense of the little tale I'm telling I need to make a quasi-political statement.  This is from little jeffy's world - it's there that politics sometimes rears its muddled head, and little jeffy has to deal with it on some level.  Comes with the territory of the common, mundane world.  I'll keep it as simple as possible:

As I mentioned earlier, I believe we have a unique opportunity in this time of personal, societal and cultural unmooring to remake ourselves.  This is always available to us on the personal level, but on the societal and cultural level it's a much tougher lift, so this opportunity is important.  To put it bluntly, the biggest impediment to achieving this in the political arena is Donald Trump and his gang.  If he is re-elected it will be a huge setback and a much, much tougher row to hoe, which would be a real shame.

That's it, that's my orientation.  Back to my tale...

You might now be guessing what that lunch conversation turned into.  My three comrades spun off into a 45 minute mutually supporting tirade that could have come right out of the Fox News playbook - Black Lives Matter being a Marxist trained organization; COVID as a Chinese conspiracy, mask wearing a fraudulent fix; Joe Biden going senile; rioters at demonstrations as leftist provocateurs organized by radical socialists.  On and on and on it went like a feed-back loop building to a crescendo.  I was stunned into silence as they peppered me with one conspiracy theory after another.

I'd heard all of this before of course, but it surprised me and I was unprepared.  Besides, if I had answered back it would have provoked them more, and I just wanted lunch to end!  So I held my tongue and breathed a sigh of relief when we returned to work.

I was troubled by the incident, and it followed me into the next day.  Upon analyzing my reaction I could see it was not the arguments that bothered me, not even the fervor and the gloating.  It was the emotions that lay just underneath the surface of the tirade - anger, resentment, hatred.  And underneath all of that, a real, palpable fear.  And these were guys I had considered decent fellows.

Little jeffy was shook up.  His faith , his yearning for the possibilities in front of us to remake ourselves had taken a blow.  With all that anger and resentment and fear dominating so many, what chance was there?  And of course, his concerns for the common, mundane world followed him into the studio, and he couldn't shake it.  Big Jeff observed his rattled studio assistant and could only shake his head.  The trials and tribulations of the common, mundane world do not directly affect him - he's too busy probing the mystery dimensions and working his magic; and besides, he at most holds opinions very, very lightly.  But little jeffy's agitation was getting to be distracting, even to the point that The Unborn was kicking a little harder in the womb, probably sensing the agitation himself.  That would just not do!

So in my mode as Big Jeff I took action.  I went to the singing bowl altar, ritually acknowledging the three holons and the holarchy.  When done I took an extra step, one I save for only the most important occasions.  I asked for help.  I didn't direct this request anywhere in particular; no deity, no beloved saint, no angels or Earth spirits.  I guess you might say, since my Significant Other is the Kosmos, I directed it to the Kosmos.  Knowing that little jeffy's faith was teetering, was on the line and under assault, I simply asked for a message, or better yet a sign to help restore his battered faith.  I struck the bowl and sent the request out into the Kosmos.

Later that day I was thinking intently about signs from the Kosmos, wondering what form they might take - an inner voice, what Teresa of Avila called locutions?  A random but relevant message from someone I know, or someone I  don't know?  A dream perhaps?  I was thinking "Signs, signs, signs, what would a sign actually look like?"  And then a film I had once seen popped into my mind, "Signs" by M. Night Shyamalon, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix.  It had been awhile since I'd seen it and details of the story eluded me, but I remembered that the signs the title alluded to were crop circles that Mel Gibson, playing a farmer/ex-minister, found in his fields and which portended an alien invasion.  I got a chuckle out of that - no crop fields in my world, so I could cross that one off of my list! Nonetheless the film kept popping into my consciousness, the title so intriguing under the circumstances.  Ultimately I decided I would have to adopt beginner's mind and remain open for anything, without preconceptions.  

By evening I had forgotten the whole thing, busy cooking for the week's lunches and catching snippets of news on TV.  It was a warm, pleasant evening and as dark approached I strolled out to my favorite spot in the local park to  watch the sunset.  When I returned I  decided to flip through the 7 or 8 movie channels I have on the TV, looking for something entertaining to help wind down the day.  The very first channel I flipped  to was showing "Signs", starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix!!!

I kid you not.  Believe me, I could not have made this up.  The little jeffy in me was flabbergasted.  "This is impossible!  What are the odds?!  How could this just be a coincidence?!"  The Big Jeff in me simply smiled.  "Of course".  

It was just 5 minutes into the film, and as I find M. Night Shyamalon films mysteriously eerie and filled with surprises I settled in to watch, looking forward to re-acquainting myself with the story. 

 (As an aside, I imagine most of you have seen this film; it was quite popular.  I'm going to recount some of the action to refresh your memory, but if you haven't seen it I hope I don't ruin it for you.  In any case it's worth seeing either again or for the first time.)

In the beginning we get a flashback to a time when the Mel Gibson character was a minister.  His wife is killed in a horrendous accident while jogging, pinned to a tree by a pick-up truck driven by a neighbor who had fallen asleep at the wheel.  The minister is able to get to her before she dies, and her last words to him seem to be nothing but gibberish.  

As the film proceeds we return to the present.  The minister has dropped his vestment and collar, having lost all faith in his religion and quitting his ministry after the senselessly random and brutal death of his wife.  He has returned to his farming, and this is when the crop circles begin appearing in his fields, the signs portending an alien invasion.  As I watched I noticed something I don't remember taking strong note of at first viewing - a running theme throughout the story is the issue of faith.  We hear it in the conversations the minister has with his brother and two children as the ominous events unfold.  You get a real sense of how bitter and disenchanted he is, how the universe seems to him senseless and barren.  He's in a black void, as if floating on a vast ocean with no land on the horizon in any direction.

I mentioned the crop circles.  Certainly they were one of the signs referred to in the title; menacing signs, we find out, as the aliens begin to appear and threaten the family.  But other signs show up, signs that are not at all obvious as they appear in the narrative.  Simple things, so simple we barely take notice of them as we watch - the young daughter leaving half empty water glasses all over the house; the young son suffering asthma attacks as the fear builds; the brother's trophy baseball bat hung above the fireplace mantel. These all become highly significant as the alien threat builds.  And of course, it turns out the gibberish spoken by the dying wife seconds before her death was not gibberish at all, but prophetic advice.

On the surface this is a science-fiction movie about an alien invasion, but the real message is about signs, and about faith.  The subtle signs save the family, and the minister wins back his faith, is redeemed by the signs.  And guess what?  Little jeffy had gotten his sign - the movie, with its themes of signs and faith, appearing in my mind that afternoon and then at exactly the time I would turn on the TV that evening.  It was the Kosmos responding almost immediately to my request in the most unexpected way possible, against astronomical odds.  Little jeffy got his "Signs", and got his faith back.


Friday, August 7, 2020

My Significant Other is the Kosmos - Darker Than Any Mystery, Part 8: Ya Gotta Have... 2nd Movement

2nd Movement

Over a long period of time I've noticed an interesting aspect of my art practice that has progressively seeped into the day-to-day work in the studio.  To put it simply, ritual has come to increasingly define how I approach even the simplest of activities.  This hasn't come about by conscious intention; rather, it seems to have gradually grown into the fabric of my activities without my noticing, until one day it dawned on me what had happened.

To illustrate what I mean by this I'll need to reintroduce a couple of characters I've labeled as holons, the ones that help to make up the holarchy that binds together my particular self-sense.  As you may remember, the world of my art practice, the creative alchemical world, is the world of Big Jeff.  He's the intuitive magician who somehow reaches into mysterious realms and pulls out dazzling and completely unexpected objects of wonder.  Little jeffy, inhabitant of the common, mundane world, has no idea how he does it, but the little guy is along for the ride.  You might call him the studio assistant.  He has the physical skills, the rational problem solving strengths, the sheer determination and willpower to get Big Jeff to the studio every day.  He also sweeps the floors.

In my particular practice these two characters work hand-in-hand; it's a nice symbiotic relationship.  Much of the work they do in the actual production of artworks is, as it turns out, rather mundane and tedious.  For instance, while working with spools of thread on painted board there is a tendency for the threads to slide uncontrollably down the side when placed at a steep angle to the edge.  To solve this problem the first solution was to rough the edges of the board with 40 grit sandpaper, creating a tooth to hold the threads in place.  This worked to some degree, but was ultimately inadequate and so a new solution had to be found.  What was finally arrived at was the use of a very small, thin-bladed wood saw to cut tiny slits into the edges of the board, slits no more than 1/16 of an inch apart.  The threads slip into the slits, holding them in place.

As you might imagine this can be very monotonous work.  At 16 cuts per inch the average artwork of 200 inch circumference requires 3200 tiny cuts.  Very carefully placed.  Guess who does that work?  Of course, that's little jeffy's job, the studio assistant.  Little jeffy was not happy with that job in the beginning - tedious, repetitive work requiring intense concentration.  To make matters worse, little jeffy's mind tends to wander as he worries about common mundane things like paying the rent, or what groceries to buy, or whether lentil soup is best with or without tomato sauce.   In other words, the common, mundane world tends to follow him around, even in the studio.

But little jeffy is the problem solver, and solve it he did.  The solution came in the form of an audio CD called 'Shamanic Drumming', which consists of two tracks, the first a recording of one drummer on an indigenous drum of some sort pounding out a steady, flat rhythm - dum dum dum dum dum dum - for 30 minutes, much like one would hear in a shamanic ritual performed by an indigenous tribe.  The second track is two drums, same flat rhythm at a similar speed of about 120 beats per minute, which apparently is the range used by indigenous tribes around the globe.  The idea is to induce a kind of concentrated trance.  Little jeffy turns on the CD, takes to his little saw and cuts the tiny slits in pace with the drumming, about one cut per 2 beats.  In a few minutes he's in a trance, and Voila!  We have a ritual.

Big Jeff has his own rituals, though they are oriented toward aiding him in reaching dimensions of mystery where he plays his creative alchemy.  One of the rituals I've developed for him consists of a small altar just inside the door of my working studio.  Central to the altar is a Tibetan singing bowl, one with a rich sound  and long period of resonance.  Next to it is a hand-wrought wooden handle wrapped at the end with fabric, for the purpose of striking the bowl.  Arranged in front of the bowl are three images on postcards of artworks of mine, each image representing for me one of the three holons that make up the holarchy of my self-sense - little jeffy; Big Jeff; The Unborn.  When I've settled into my studio for a day of work, before any creative activity begins, I perform a benediction of sorts - I first place a hand on the image representing little jeffy, acknowledge his place in the holarchy and the value he brings, then I strike the bowl, focusing intently on the reverberating sound as it slowly fades.  Then I follow suit with Big Jeff, and follow that with The Unborn.  Finally I strike the bowl and stretch both hands over all of the images, acknowledging the holarchy of my self-sense and its structure that holds it all together.  All of this is a very centering, very calming ritualistic start to my creative day.

I recently found a new use for my singing bowl altar, and here is where my tale begins:

Lately, in my guise as little jeffy, I have been going through a tough period in the common, mundane world - several rejections for possible exhibitions; a big art installation job vanishing with no explanation; a colleague getting extremely upset with me over an imagined insult; and on, and on, and on.  One of those periods we all go through from time to time when it seems the universe is piling it on.  Mostly we just tough it out and things pass, but one incident got to me, the proverbial straw on the camel's back.

I was working on an art installation job in a new apartment complex with 3 other fellows.  I've worked with these guys in the past and we've gotten along fine together.  I don't know them real well but I've considered them decent folk and good workers, which I respect, though they are not the types I would likely befriend outside work.  As is usual out in the field we went to lunch together, and while sitting at the restaurant the talk turned to politics and recent events.  And that's when the camel's back broke.  But that will have to wait till next time.

To be continued...

Monday, August 3, 2020

My Significant Other is the Kosmos - Darker Than Any Mystery, Part 8: Ya Gotta Have... First Movement

First Movement

When the COVID lock-down descended upon us I had a curious reaction bubble up into my consciousness - it occurred to me that this was an excellent opportunity for introspection, and I welcomed it.  Suddenly there was nowhere I had to be, nothing I had to do, and for an indefinite period of time.  So I simply watched as automobile traffic went away, heavily polluted cites world wide became sparkling gems in the clearing air, and the biggest hole ever in the ozone layer completely vanished within thirty days.  I simply watched all of this, and as I turned inward I found myself in a profound state of prolonged relaxation.

Eventually it dawned on me that another opportunity was being presented to all of us.  We had entered, as it came to be said, the 'new normal', which really meant 'normal' had been completely jettisoned.  Many of our notions of what defined our lives went out the window.  Solid pillars that had propped up our habitual day-to-day functions and expectations now lay around in crumbled heaps at our feet.  And I welcomed it.  This was an opportunity being presented to us, an opportunity to look at everything with fresh eyes, unmuddied by both conscious and subconscious assumptions and habits.

This new situation had an eerily familiar feel for me.  You might remember my writing in a previous posting of the existential crisis I passed through when my own personal self-construction collapsed like so many propped up domino pieces.  It wasn't pleasant.  In fact, it was downright painful, and it left me in a rather terrifying void, unanchored and with nothing visible on the horizon.  It could be said that this current COVID crisis is a macro-cosmic reflection of that personal micro-cosmic situation I found myself in years ago.  And you might remember that something astonishing and completely unexpected rushed into this void I had been thrust into, something which over time has remade me.  This suggests to me that there is an opportunity here and now for something equally astonishing to fill our mutual void which has been presented to us on the macro level of society and culture by the COVID crisis.  We can remake ourselves in ways big and small.

But ya gotta have faith...

I have a tale to tell, and I want to anticipate it by making a distinction between two commonly used terms: belief and faith.  In my dictionary at home there is essentially no distinction made; the terms are, generally speaking, interchangeable. But I do want to clarify a distinction in my own mind because I think it's important, and because it is a more subtle approach than the typical use of those terms.  You can take it or leave it, of course. 

I see belief as the acceptance of a truth without proof or direct experience.  This truth usually comes from an exterior source, say our parents, or an authority figure outside the family.  It can be based on religious texts such as the Bible or Koran; Buddhism's Four Noble Truths; the Sutras of Patanjali.  These truths, greater or lesser, are simply accepted, simply believed without question.  I used to see here and there a bumper sticker that read "The Bible says so, I believe it, and that's that!"  Pretty much sums up what I mean by belief.

Faith is a little different in my book.  I was surprised several years ago, while exploring the ins and outs of Buddhism through various readings, to find more than one source stating that a fundamental tenet of Buddhism was the necessity of faith.  At that time I equated faith with belief, and was intrigued to see this emphasis on faith/belief, especially since I didn't interpret Buddhism as being an especially dogmatic orientation - it has always seemed to me more open-ended, less rigid, less insistent on belief than most of the major religious doctrines around the world.  And so I asked "What does a Buddhist have faith in?"  An answer might be Enlightenment, or Buddha Nature, or simply the end of suffering.  But these are rather vague, ambiguously fuzzy terms to those of us who have not achieved these states, whatever they be.  Which is to say, fuzzy to most of us.  Including most Buddhists.

So what does Buddhist philosophy mean by faith?  They don't say belief;  in fact, the Buddha himself flatly stated one should believe nothing - as the saying goes, if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.  Here's where I think faith is different from belief.  Belief is a statement.  Belief is solid.  Belief is defining.  Faith, on the other hand, is a feeling.  Faith is a quality.  Faith is a yearning.  You don't believe in Buddha Nature, you don't even really know exactly what it is.  But you yearn for it, you desire it, you have eros for it.  You can't state it, you can't define it, you can't picture it.  But you want it.  Faith is, quite simply, yearning itself.

And that is what I mean when I suggest that there's an opportunity for us amid this COVID crisis to remake ourselves, and to do that you gotta have faith, you gotta have a yearning.  Ya gotta want it.  It's in that context that I will spin for you my little tale...but not now.  Still some groundwork to lay out.

To be continued...