introspection + expression = art

I could easily repost at least half of what jonah lehrer blogs about, he is so darn entertaining, but this one is especially resonant as it creeps towards a discussion of that potential value of teaching introspection and expression.

What’s your favorite sense?

My biological psychology professor recently asked us, “What’s your favorite sense?” I’ve entertained a similar question before: if you had to give up one sense, which would it be? Though I don’t have a ready answer to that question either, the one I often choose to place last in line is vision. Maybe this is because I am so affected by color. In fact, I’m often baffled by other people’s apparent lack of fine color discrimination (apart from the naming itself which is another topic entirely). My reluctance to give up vision might make it the obvious choice for favorite, but I’m going to skip the obvious and go for a much more subtle and, at least to me, complex sense: smell.

My fascination with smell has to do with the ways in which it rehydrates long dormant and seemingly forgotten ordinary experiences. Among the senses, it appears that olfaction has the most unique relationship to memory. While I might have strong visual and episodic memories of where I was and who I talked with on September 11, I do not remember a single thing about what I smelled though I might have if I’d noticed something in particular that day. Alternatively, events that are entirely mundane, unmemorable to the most imaginable degree, are summoned back in vivid detail by a smell. I had a most transcendent experience of this phenomenon when I opened an ancient blue-tinted mason jar full of buttons that I’d collected from my grandmother’s sewing room after she died. In that jar was a embodied experience of place.

What I find so intriguing about the power of smell is its ability to rekindle deep experiential memories — the feeling of being there. If you asked me to remember my grandparent’s house, the resulting tableau would certainly include smells I experienced over many years there – percolated coffee, german sausage, oil paint and lake water – but I could not have resurrected the experience of being there brought so vividly to life by smelling all those things, mixed together for years and years, and captured in a jar of buttons.

wabi sabi

While on a ten day silent retreat, I kept a journal, hoping preserve my revelatory thoughts. When I reread these journal entries, I’m struck by the transition in my own handwriting. Each day the thoughts become more spacious, the handwriting less hurried and more precise. Some entries read like directives, advice to my future, less-centered, self. One such directive was take one picture a day. I was struck by the vividness of tastes and colors, the attention to which I hoped to carry back into my everyday life. This attention to the intricacy of sensation has been far more difficult than I anticipated.

Maries rusty bells

Today, a year and a half later, I took a picture, more than one actually, possibly defeating the purpose of the contemplative minimalism of a single one. I was prompted by my notice of a few strands of weathered red leather and some rusty jungle bells sitting at the threshold of my back door. These bits originally made up a shiny bough of bells, not unlike a bunch of grapes, strung together by my grandmother, Marie. At some point I had hung them on the back doorknob as a way for my cat, Ivy, to let me know she’d like to come in. She used her doorbell until the weather undid it.

Ivy with a Macro

A stunning soon-to-be fall day drew me and a cup of tea to the back door, leading onto the deck. I will assume that my first thoughts on seeing the bells were fairly deep in my consciousness, flickers of firings not large enough to register consciously. After all, I had stepped over them countless times, their presence barely noticed. Next, I thought, would anyone else just abandon these mementos from grandma, day in and day out? Yes, but only a certain kind of person, one who, like me, is not so attuned to the chopping wood and carrying water activities of keeping house.


Despite the tinge of guilt, I was struck by the beauty of their present state. Mixed with the grey and tan leaves of last fall,they had been made even more colorful by rust. This is a beauty born of process, molecular changes created by sun and rain, by the batting of cat paws. The Japanese call this wabi sabi… the beauty of use and decay, the physical manifestation of processes. Appreciating the aesthetics of things that are falling apart seems to be a pragmatic skill. Everything falls apart eventually. Appreciating the lines on my own face, the big stripes of grey showing up in my hair, these things are challenging but doable. Not only that, they bring the ease that so often accompanies the ends of arguments with reality.


One section of ramblings here at contemplate this… is titled meaning mining and though I am convinced that the process part, the mining, is a key to my personal evolution and fulfillment, the meaning part can be a bit of a red-herring. (For some background on the practices of inviting unknowing and avoiding declarations, see interview with a conductor. ) This should not have come as a surprise to me as I have long proselytized on the value of process over product but, as has been my experience, the good lessons are so good that I like to learn them over and over again!

It is with this in mind that I have been following the trail of bread-crumbs, that is, sticking to the mining regardless of the apparent absence of clear meaning. For whatever reason, I have been inundated with cathedral experiences of late. A couple months ago I found myself recounting the story line of an oddly inspiring short-story titled cathedral in the eponymous book by Raymond Carver. I call its inspiration odd due to the dark and mildly depressing tone of the character narrating, a man who reluctantly welcomes a blind man, his wife’s former boss, into his home. They are brought together by circumstance and share a transcendent moment of connection during which the narrator comes to draw a cathedral, flying buttresses and all, while allowing the blind man to place a hand on his and so to see the glory and grandeur through the movement of pencil on paper. It’s a beautiful story that I read long ago and I have no memory of why I was describing it recently.

A long-planned family vacation to Spain came and went this last couple weeks and brought me into full contact with beautiful and inspiring cathedrals I’ve not experienced since being a college art-school freshman in Florence. I was so drawn to them I found myself setting off on my own to every cathedral I could find regardless of planned agenda of the rest of my family. There was a surprising amount of variation in color, light, materials, and feel as seen in the photos I took. The most significantly unique is, not surprisingly, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, still under construction in Barcelona. The spiritual & historical significance of these structures boggles my mind – structures so ambitious in scale and detail that they required generations to bring into being. Does this kind of creation have any parallels in realms not devoted to glorifying god? I am awe struck.

Visit the photo gallery for cathedral shots from Barcelona, Granada, Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville.

clear seeing

The impetus for organizing contemplate this… around the senses arose out of our own studies in tantric schools of yoga that weave sensory information into contemplative practices. The short and sweet description of what makes a yogi of the tantric school is this:

  • in non-tantric (dual) traditions, the senses of the body and the entire material world are taught to be illusion and so seen beyond or transcended.
  • in the tantric (non-dual) schools of Kasmir Saivism as well as other non-dual traditions of Zen & Taoism, the senses and the physical world are not only real, they are primary tools for dissolving our perceptions of separateness. In other words, only the perception of separateness is an illusion.

Even with perfect eyes, we are not born with the ability to see. Through our own experimental learning in the world we develop our ability to see and understand in conjunction with our other senses. When we see something and then put it in our mouths as young children we have kicked off the creation of new neural connections. The recognition of stairs, faces, the gait of a lover, all incredible feats of learning, come to us almost automatically though some not without a scraped knee or two.

You can think of all of this learning as a process in which we create a conceptual understanding to make sense of our world. This is blue, that is green, the edge of the step is there. We start to amass short-cuts that free us up for higher learning. Afterall, if we had to be vigilantly and consciously looking for the edge of each step we’d be fairly hampered in our ability to move onto the development of more ambitious motor skills such as dancing. While these short-cuts serve us well there is another edge to them – by definition, a short-cut was made with old data. If we taste and file away tomatoes as gross at the age of 10, we may never again taste a tomato. We are not static beings and a good deal of our pain and suffering is caused by operating with old data that is no longer serving us. While not eating tomatoes is not likely to create suffering for you (especially if you are blissfully unaware of the fact that you like them), other old patterns of reaction can and do, most often in how we relate to others.

Keeping our instruments tuned though the honing of our sensory perceptions allows us to improve our assessment of where we are and how we’re doing at any given time. This sounds a little esoteric but it’s what will help us to gather fresh data allowing us to move through the world in ways that serve us well. Without a practice of atunement we often don’t perceive the dissonances until they club us over the head with mis-fortune or disease. Jung said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate.” This perception of things being done TO US can easily lock us in a state of victim-hood. So how do we make an inner situation conscious? Contemplate, of course… cultivate a stillness in the moment that allows our inner situation to reveal itself.

A simple contemplative practice using sight as an anchor is to meditate while focusing on a point or an object. This practice is amazingly powerful (though uncomfortable at first) when practiced with a partner. We were exposed to partner gazing by our teacher, Richard Miller, first in 2001. Yes, you will feel quite self-conscious at first. Fits of laughter are common until you begin to settle in. All manner of odd phenomenon may come up. One thing to remind yourselves as you practice this technique is that whatever you experience in your vision is originating from within your self. If your partner’s face morphs into something monstrous or angelic, rest assured, you are not seeing their inner daemons or angels; they are most certainly your own. It’s not necessary to analyze what comes up for you. Simply watch, with curiosity, whatever arises.

Another vision-based contemplative practice also requires a friend to help out. Choose one person to act as “the camera” and the other as “the photographer”. The camera closes his or her eyes and is guided and positioned by the photographer in silence. When the photographer gives the camera a gentle hand squeeze the camera can open his or her eyes. There is a fresh seeing that is possible when we are invited into an unknown visual arena by another. After the photographer signals again, the camera closes the eyes and is led to a new sight.

These, like all contemplative practices, are exercises for inviting us into first-person experiences of the present moment, plain and simple. There is nothing earth-shaking or dramatic about contemplation but, over time, the practices will make it easier to bring presence into each moment of your life, helping fresh sensory input to guide you well.