It is a gray October day and I am at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City standing in front of a Rothko. The one titled No. 3/No. 13. If you’re not familiar with Rothko, it’s hard to explain in words. Impossible actually. But maybe you can picture yourself in front of a painting, or a drawing or a photograph that you know; one that resonates with you on a kind of gut level. One that calls up a very particular and evocative feeling. For me this Rothko takes me to that gut level immediately. The feeling here is something like melancholy infused with infinite space and possibility– like looking out over the ocean on a winter day. That’s what I tell my friend who is standing next to me anyway, but I’m kind of missing the point. Well, not quite – he nods in agreement – he gets it, he feels something like that too. But the words, the description of the painting, no matter how exquisite or metaphorical, cannot hold a candle to the richness of emotion conveyed by the painting itself, just as me describing to you the concept of looking out at the sea in winter cannot compare to actually being on the shore in February. Rothko himself has stated definitively that he was interested in expressing very basic human emotions, but it’s important to note that he didn’t do so by writing the word “angry” or “melancholy” on a blank canvas. No. 3/No. 13 is just a rust-colored background with some rectangular swatches of white, purple, black, and green. There is something in the work of Rothko that speaks directly to sense perceptions, and there is a power in that because it penetrates to the quality of experience without concept. I would say that his paintings not only convey emotion, but they provide a background for that emotion – there is both energy and space in his work. The space allows for an experience of emotion that is not claustrophobic, not hampered by story and direction.
Earlier that same day in October I prepare for a daily sitting practice. I light the candles and incense on my shrine, I sit down and take my posture. I ring my small gong. I settle into my body. And then I begin to watch my breath. Thoughts arise and dissolve. Emotions come as well, but on the cushion, instead of getting dragged into a swell of speed and reactivity, I can just sit and breathe, allow myself to feel the texture of the feeling. And then, for one instant, my breath dissolves into space and I lose track of the barrier between myself and the outside world. There is a brief gap, a moment of direct perception. Kind of like the first hit I get when I look at No. 3/No. 13. Rothko once said “The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.”
Does this seem familiar? To me, it sounds like the artist’s version of the basic Mahayana idea of egolessness – no self and no other. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Rothko managed to transcend his own ego. Nor have we (yet) as Buddhists. But as practitioners we seek to dissolve these barriers. Rothko with his brush and we on our cushions are playing with the experience of egolessness. We may touch it for a moment, resting in the space of direct perception before going back to the habitual pattern of trying to solidify experience with labels and concepts, separating ourselves from others.
I’ve found that watching my mind in meditation is somewhat akin to walking through a gallery of paintings, all by the same artist. Each painting is its own unique expression, but because they are all from one person, I can begin to see some similarities between them – maybe the color palette, or the thrust of the brush stroke, or a direction and speed of perceived movement in the painting. Perhaps these observations are literal, as, for example, they might be described in the curator’s notes on the exhibit. Or, after looking at all of these paintings with openness and curiosity, a certain strong evocative feeling may arise. Both the conceptual observations of the curator and the indescribable feelings of the open-minded observer are examples of insight. It is the same for me in meditation. By watching my breath, I allow the space for observation of thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall. I may notice very simply that I have a tendency towards this or that: I see a habitual pattern — that there is a certain thrust to my brushstroke, so to speak. Or, maybe, after a while, my observations crack open into something deeper, into a nonverbal but knowing feeling. These openings help me to get at some inexplicable truth — something real, confirmed by my own non-conceptual experience; just in the same way as when I stand in front of a Rothko, I know exactly what it means — without words.
The Buddhist Abhidharma teachings tell us that mind is not a definable place or thing. It is, like everything else, impermanent. Mind arises and dissolves based on the apprehension of an object — be that a smell, thought, feeling, etc. — over and over again at an incredible speed; somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 times per second. We sentient beings can’t help but string these flashes together to form the illusion of one continuous experience. I don’t know why it is said that these instants happen every 1/500th of a second, or how to prove it, but as a photographer I am fascinated that the time allotted for a single flicker of mind is also a standard shutter speed on my camera.
In its ability to capture the briefest of time-frames, photography helps us see nature of impermanence. Why? Because when we look at a compelling photograph, we are staring directly at the fleetingness of experience. In a photograph, there is an incredibly realistic portrayal of a frozen moment — a moment that is perhaps the same exact length as a “dharma.” That’s the word for the smallest serving size of mind: that flicker of feeling or perception or attention that takes place within 1/500th of a second. This briefness is normally invisible, imperceptible; we do not experience things as they are expressed in photographs. In real life, time marches on, and we cannot preserve a glance, or a smile, or a diver in mid-air before he plunges into the water. But the photograph can evoke in us the kind of hit we get in that fraction of a second within a smile — or the instant before body makes splash. And then, it lets us stay there, a little bit longer, before the next fraction of a second comes and gives rise to concept, or story, or just the never ending march of more and more moments. A good photograph, one that captures the attention, can allow us to dwell in an imperceptible amount of time for a perceptible amount of time. But what we see is an artifice, and we know this; the moment is not actually frozen: the diver has long ago hit the water and a million things have happened to him since. The woman smiling is no longer smiling, she has gone on to do other things, perhaps she has grown older, maybe she is no longer living. In participating in an illusion of permanence, we see the nature of impermanence. We contrast the qualities of the photograph — still, timeless, fixed — with the essence of our own experience, which is constantly moving and alive and changing. The poignancy of that contrast can be exhilarating or devastating or both, just as our awakened hearts can hold joy and sadness.
For me, making photographs is an extension of that awakened heart. When I am present in the moment, I can communicate with lens and light the sadness or joy — or, more accurately, both — inherent in human experience. When I am shooting, openness, non-judgement, and genuineness are essential — just as they are on the cushion. The result (maybe) is a photograph that transmits the sting of impermanence. Or maybe not. I have to remind myself it is practice I am after, not results. The important part is connecting with my experience of the moment, perhaps catching a glimpse of the dissolution of boundary between self and other as I click the shutter. And if I come up with a worthy photograph, well, that is a means of communicating to others, a way to provide an experience of sadness or joy (or better yet, both) for the benefit of beings. Ego is there, but I try to work with it gently and not let it get in the way. When it does, when I identify myself too strongly with my work — or want to separate from it — it locks up the freedom to be in the moment.
In this way, meditation feeds art and art feeds meditation. Studying Buddhist teachings helps me understand both. Sitting helps me settle my mind, reveals my habitual patterns, and allows me to connect with awakened heart. Making art is a different process but it has a similar quality of peeling away layers of concept and getting in touch with direct experience. Either one can alternate between frustrating or illuminating. Either one can have its periods of dullness or insight. I would argue that both contain a path towards awakening — though I don’t think I could choose one without the other.
Staring at the Rothko, I am reminded that art is absolutely essential in my life. 1/500th of a second later, the thought arises that meditation is too.