But the view I want to point to now is one that the mystics have been pointing to for thousands of years. When we rest as our open, ordinary awareness, the entire universe is a transparent shimmering of energy, of emptiness, of "supercompletness".
Paintings like this can make us feel so awake that everything happening around us appears strikingly fresh and new. They can revive or replenish our sense of wonder.
This is a good question from Wittgenstein’s Investigations: “Ask your self ‘For how long am I struck by a thing? — For how long do I find it new?’
Like Okeeffe said: to view a flower takes time. To view a shell takes time. The countless hours Bob spent studying and perceiving this shell shimmer like a mystical magnet within this painting, attracting our attention again and again, much like that actual shell must have attracted his. But we don't have hours to spend looking at a shell. We’re busy. But the artist (and nature mystic) has plenty of time to study. And we get the synthesized findings of that research. We get the report, a tiny, potent whiff, one that causes us to swoon a little bit. It’s like a wine-maker who, after spending years researching and experimenting and finding the best flavor, gives us a glass.
We get the greatest hits of the shell. Like a movie that takes years to produce, we get the 2-hour long edited highlights, a two-hour intense trip through hours of hard work and creativity.
This shell painting could be classified as “Hyperrealism.” Hyperrealism invites us into the immediate and concrete nature of actual moment-moment experience. It is not photo-realism. This shell doesn't look like a photo at all. It looks like the real thing, not a flat replication of it. We could say that this shell gestures toward a vivid and penetrating experience of lucid perception and clear vision, unclouded by intellect, abstraction, confusion, or desire. This is one purpose of hyperrealism. It presents the object in its suchness, or its “supercompletness.”
The shell is totally complete. Nothing needs to be added or taken away.
When I look at this painting I am reminded that I have available to me a type of awareness that sees supercompletness in things, and when I am in that state there is a kind of opening out and relaxing of awareness in its original freshness and luminosity.
The shell reflects my own vivid, clear vision. But I also think it reflects a kind of warmth and sensitivity that radiates from the rich, deep soul of the artist. Bob was someone whom people loved to be around. He had a kindness, warmth, and a genuineness that made people feel good. That is a good test for how evolved a soul is, I think. Do people love being around it? And Bob was an old soul, wise, free, childlike, kind; and in a way this shell reflects those qualities, doesn't it? I think, “Whoever painted this shell must be wise.”
It is said that one purpose of art is to “nourish the soul” It is easy to see how this purpose is achieved with the artist. By painting, Bob got to quiet his mind and spend time communing with the shell (and present moment experience). It’s like how meditation nourishes the body and mind. But how about the viewers? How are we nourished by this painting? No doubt Bob is communicating a sense of depth and beauty in the natural world. He seems to be describing a kind of nature mysticism. And it is here that we can begin to understand how art actually nourishes our soul and helps nudge it along its evolutionary path to greater and deeper modes of being.
To put it simply: Art provides the viewer with another perspective of the world. And taking other perspectives forces the mind to grow.
Also, art can give us a glimpse at altered states of mind.
We get to see the shell as he saw it: crystal clear, fresh, open, and supercomplete.
Immediate, open awareness shines effortlessly like the sunlight falling through that window. And when the mind is clean and clear and quiet the light shines even brighter and clearer. It’s as if Bob cleaned off his mind and perception, wiping away all the noise and crusty accumulation life deposits, and then clearly reflected the shell. The shell entered his clear, fresh, open awareness effortlessly and completely, like an object reflected in a crystal clear mirror.
Alan Combs, a Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, suggests that spiritual growth means to
advance toward increasingly creative, dynamic, and expansive ways of living in and experiencing the world.
Combs also asserts that evolved states of consciousness
are therefore to be assessed by how far they reach “beyond mental abstractions toward an experience of the immediate present.” This shell painting is not an abstract, intellectual puzzle that only a few people can (and would care to) decipher. It is free of mental abstractions; it presents (and honors) the world as experienced purely and immediately. Like all great art, it provides us with an example of what the world can look like from an evolved (or simply different) perspective. And sometimes, as is the case with most still-life paintings, that artistic perspective is colored by an intense investigation of what is happening in the world of the immediate present moment.
Formally, this painting exhibits “central composition” with the main figure directly in the center (emphasized also by the circular shape of the painting itself.) This is a bulls-eye painting. Central compositions have a balance and symmetry that is, as I said earlier, usually reserved for religious paintings, with a Buddha or saint in the very center of the work. Bob often said his most recent work was finally free of complicated, forced compositions, which are “unnatural and heady.” He felt the central composition was much more genuine.
However, the central composition in this painting is broken as soon as it appears to be there, because the shell is on its side. It is off centered, off balance, lopsided. Symmetry and asymmetry are both present; order and chaos; this painting includes them both, and thus includes a tension that communicates something very important to the viewer.
I think this painting is in fact a representation of the ever-present and endless mystery of what is happening all around us right now. It's a mirror shining into that diaphanous, ever-changing, ever-new glory that is supercompletness and radiant beauty.
Thus, almost surreptitiously, Bob leads us into a
consciousness that beholds the entire living world as a flowing and flowering collection of luminous objects worthy of our undivided attention. If while gazing at this painting you become a bit giddy, perhaps it will be because Bob’s vision has guided you into a God’s-eye view, where only Beauty Shines, supercomplete, superabundant, ever-changing, ever-divine, and ever-new.
Also, you might notice that in the presence of this painting all inner turbulence comes to rest. We look at this shell and we are quieted. We feel at peace, a peace that could be similar to what Bob felt while painting. This is called “state transmission.”
Alex grey explains in his book “The Mission of Art” that art is a powerful and sacred medium of transmission and that the state of consciousness in which a work is created can be recapitulated in those that perceive it.
However, this is true for the perception of people too. We are always transmitting our states to each other. I read in an article by Daniel Goldman (“Emotional Intelligence”) about Mirror Neurons in the brain. These neurons are designed to mirror whatever emotional state another person is experiencing. Goldman says this actually makes us “wired for empathy.” (This might also be why people find so much joy being around saints or gurus. Why was being in India around the Dalai Lama so wonderful?) In the same way, when a painting enters us, there is a transmission of sorts, and we feel something. While looking at this shell I feel quiet peace and ecstatic joy. I am in love with the light falling across its face, and I want to gaze into that drapery like I want to gaze into the eyes of a lover; it is so soft and alluring, like flowing waves or clouds. Were these emotions also felt by the artist? Am I feeling the kind of adoration and appreciation he felt while looking at that shell by the window?
When I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam I was struck by how tiring it was to look at the paintings. They were hellish, maddening, screaming, while also luminous, numinous, and glorious. His landscapes contained both heaven and hell, as did his own body-mind. He was a mystic in his own right (“I am whole in spirit, I am the holy spirit!”), and according g to his letters he really felt that he was painting the radiance of God through the colorful landscapes and natural forms. But his psychological diseases and mad depression crept into his mind. He says he painted while at peace, but would stop whenever he felt an attack coming (and in some of his paintings you can actually see where the attack came). This could explain his fast and intense brushwork (he wanted to get the painting done as quickly as possible, because he knew his peaceful, joyful state of consciousness would not last long).
We help create the world we see. As Ken Wilber points out, the structure and stage and state of consciousness, to some extent, determines the form or the phenomena that arise within it. Different forms of consciousness actually bring forth different phenomena, they see a different world. Anyone who has done drugs knows this very well. When you are in an altered state, you see a different world. Bob told us that he doesn't use drugs in the studio, so this shell is what his ordinary consciousness saw. Not just his eyes, of course, but also his mind saw this beauty. (A person in the magic stage of consciousness will see a different world then someone at a rational stage. Different worldviews are different worlds. What world was Bob looking at/looking through/co-creating with his mind?
No mater where you are in your conscious development, good art will speak to you. If you are magic, then this might be a magic shell, somehow stuck in the surface of the wood (think of a baby trying to figure this painting out!). If you are mythic, then maybe this shell is a mythic symbol for something. Or, it might be evil, and burning it is the only way to free us from its demonic powers. If you are rational you might love the rational laws this panting is following. Existential consciousness might see an existential, lonely, meaningless shell, shallow, empty, yet simple and truthful. Pluralistic consciousness might hate this painting, finding it unexpressive and uninteresting and silly/naive in its traditionalism. Integral consciousness might delight in seeing all these things and will attempt put them together into some grand story. Subtle or Causal or Supramental consciousness might see the painting as a perfect reflection of the spontaneous and fresh manifestation of infinite beauty freely self liberating in the transparent openness of pure immediate reality, supercomplete. Luckily, we have within us all these potential views, and therefore, all of them can be enacted while viewing this painting.
But the view I want to point to now is one that the mystics have been pointing to for thousands of years. When we rest as an open, ordinary awareness, the entire universe is a transparent shimmering of energy, of emptiness, of “supercompletness”. The divine emptiness is not someplace else…it is all of this shimmering. It is the patina of that shell. It is that hidden bit of orange. It is the soft shadows of the cloth. It is the clear window light illuminating everything it falls upon. It is the content of the painting, as well as the smooth surface, the black frame, and the vewer. Luminouse Emptiness is the entire conciouse disply, shimmering in the mind of the present moment…shimmering in you, from you, as you, right now.
We are affected by everything that enters into our awareness. Walk down the street and notice how the environment actively co-creates what you think about and how you act. This isn’t news, of course, but it is an important thing to think about when considering the function of art. When art enters someone, it changes them forever. This is true about everything, but art especially holds this power. I’m reminded of something Mr. Rogers once said:
“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
Peaking into the state of existing as a no-self, while existing as the totality of the flowing, dynamic present experience is known as a peek (peak) experience and is considered quite important in the spiritual traditions. Good art can facilitate such a mystical experience.
Dogen: When I heard the sound of the bell, there was no I and no bell, just the ringing.
In the immediate present experience, there was no “bell” because Dogen couldn’t see a bell. He could only hear it. So, “a bell is ringing” was just another thought, not the actual experience. Likewise, “I hear” is another thought. There is no hearer or “I” set apart from the sounds heard, (you can never separate the two, they are, in actuality, one process.). In immediate reality there is just the hearing, just the ringing sensation. Bodymind dropped, Dogen sat listening to the ringing bell, not as a man, but as an opening or awakened mind identical to everything arising within it.
Applying his poem to the painting we get this: When I saw the painting of the shell, there was no I, and no painting, just the shell.
This reminds me of when I saw the great Yasuchika Konno perform a butoh dance in Nagoya. When I saw the dancer dancing, there was no I, and no dancer, just the dancing. Any intense aesthetic experience can attract so much attention that one literally doesn't have the time or the desire to reconstruct the idea of a self. Instead, the present reality alone holds the majority of one’s conscious attention. “I” am forgotten. The hearer and the heard are forgotten, and only the luminous process of hearing and perceiving is the reality happening. That alone exists in those peek moments.
When I saw Konno perform I forgot myself and instead was filled with his dynamic and hauntingly unpredictable movements. I didn't have time to think about myself. I didn't have time to reconstruct my story. His moves were changing so rapidly or so subtly I had to give my full attention to what was occurring in the present. “I” was not real in that moment. It was just another contructed thought.
After experiences like that, the “I” that we normally identify with seems a bit more transparent and constructed out of dream and memory, doesn't it? It’s not a real, solid entity, but is instead a thought, a feeling, that sometimes disappears like the rest. With meditation and practice one can actually dissolve into that immediate, selfless experience, “where the seer, the seen, and the seeing become one process” more easily, and sustain that kind of awareness for quite some time. But for most of us it is only intense, vivid experiences, like sports, art, music, and sex, that shock us into this no-self state that is full of present moment reality.
Study this shell painting again. Place it in the center of your awareness and notice the self that was there just a few moments ago move aside and fade a bit into the foggy peripheral horizons of your awareness.
Oh, and interestingly, what I mentioned before, about how the object of awareness and the self perceiving it become one, well, Bob taught us to draw that way, saying how we needed to forget our selves and feel into the object to know it subjectively. He did that with this shell, and thus we can feel it as we experience his subjective interpretation of being the shell seeing itself through human perception (What?).
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