Notes towards an egoless poetry 14: Nondual Awareness
It's a truth and an experience that keeps getting re-discovered, re-invented, stumbled over, found. So many mystics and artists have said so many similar things that it's hard sometimes not to view art-making as a mystical Way, if only because the various observations by various participants seem to locate a unified core of shared revelation. Perhaps art is a Way; although comments like that tend to raise the ironic eyebrow of defensive distancing, in these latter, cynical, all-too-self-conscious days.
What's essential, though, in the essential root of the word "essence," is that nonduality is a human birthright. If it were a fluke, it wouldn't keep turning up. It would have been discovered and discarded. Instead, nondual awareness keeps getting mentioned, obliquely or directly, in writings and sayings of all human beings, in every era, in every land. It keeps re-appearing, as a fresh insight, a brand new awareness, that is also one of the oldest knowledges in the human toolkit. We all seem to be tapped into it. That is, if we don't run away from it, in fear of losing our little self inside a greater Self. That is a risk.
The little self, which is another name for the personality-ego, that grasping thing that likes to drive the vehicle of the self and isn't good at reading maps, the little self often fears its own dissolution. Even though its dissolution is into something greater, like a block of salt into the ocean, which does not change its essence but expands it, reveals it, complicates and transcends it.
Transpersonal psychologists discuss experiences of oceanic awareness, what Abraham Maslow called peak experiences, in which the little self seems to fall away, and the awareness expands to a cosmic level, being able to feel every grain of sand on a beach and the galaxy whirling at the same time. Oceanic experiences, it has been established by this branch of psychology, are not pathological: they are experiences of non-ordinary consciousness, but they are not aberrations. They are available to all; the only difference between how you or I might have such an experience is a matter of scale, or a matter of what triggers the experience. Different triggers, different levels of immersion. But we all have those quiet moments, in which everything becomes still, and that which is deepest within us seems to take a moment to contemplate itself, and its place in the Universe from which it is not separate, but part of the driving engine of life.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
"Innocence" had a special meaning for Blake. It meant "openness" rather than naiveté, joy in experience rather repression of the senses (or the sensual). "Experience" meant expert's mind, which thinks it knows everything and has become jaundiced and cynical and hardened into fixed beliefs, while "innocence" meant beginner's mind, in which every experience is a new one, a fresh one. "Innocence" in Blake, especially in the long poem Auguries of Innocence, constructed in aphoristic quatrains, means nondual awareness. Hell, for Blake, as for many mystics, is a trap and a place one experiences in life, not in an afterlife: a place of fixed belief, rigid opinion, and stultifying mental walls that are closed to fresh light, fresh air. Heaven is also right here, right now, and Heaven is nondual.
Most ordinary consciousness, in which our awareness usually inhabits the little self, the personality-ego, is dualistic. Dualistic in structure and nature. The little self is always telling itself that it is unique, different, separate, valuable: an individual. But often an individual alienated from the rest of Self. This is subject-object consciousness, in which we are separate from what we view.
The glaring contrast between seeing and looking-at the world around us is immense; it is fateful. Everything in our society seems to conspire against our inborn human gift of seeing. We have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, microscopes, spectroscopes, stereoscopes—the less we see. The less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.
—Frederick Franck, Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing
Subject-subject consciousness is, rather, seeing that we are not-two. That in fact we are One. The spear in my brother's heart is the spear in my own heart: we are One. Empathy is the root of compassion for the Other. When we feel that we are both wounded in the heart, we can find common ground with the Other, with the Enemy, with the unknown and incomprehensible. This can take work, and be a risk.
If you want to preserve your little self in the encounter with the world, you might rephrase this as: Getting to know the Other as though it were oneself, a part of oneself, a close companion whose patterns one can at least come to recognize even if one resists identifying with them.
There may some value in preserving a corner of the little self, even as the rest dissolves. The fear of losing the self, and dissolving into something greater, however, should not become a fear of intimacy itself. Alienation is a meagre substitute for intimacy.
Rilke described love and marriage as two solitudes meeting. He wrote in a letter: I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other. The fourth of the Letters to a Young Poet is the one particlularly about solitude.
Rilke believed in preserving the self in its encounter with life. Perhaps that ability to observe, standing (as E.M. Forster described the poet Cavafy) at a slight angle to the universe, is the mark of a poet, an artist. One who is able to both participate fully, by immersion in the flow of the moment, and to reflect on that moment by re-creating it for others to also share in the re-created experience. Keeping a little bit of distance, Rilke argues when he says that we must protect each other's solitude, can make one a better artist, because one remains a more-dispassionate observer of the flow of life in which one is otherwise immersed.
Now we come to where many non-artists do not understand the artistic process. First, they see it as separate from themselves, as something they can't participate in. Second, they view art-making as an act of will, or desire, something consciously intended and intentional. Many adults who think this have simply forgotten how to play. Third, non-artists often misunderstand that art is not an activity, that one can set aside like a pair of scissors, but an immersive way of life, of being. They don't see that art-making is not something you can necessarily pick up and put down, like a hobby craft, but that it can be as necessary to the artist as breathing. The necessity of making is how art can become a Way: by becoming an immersive, continuous, even spiritual practice. Sometimes music is more important that food.
Frederick Franck thought the word "creativity" had become debased by being overused as a mere activity rather than a way of being—arts & crafts as a hobby rather than art as a practice—in the arena of dualistic, little-self consciousness. The last thing that art is, according to Franck, is mere self-expression. He stated this explicitly in a long interview near the end of his life:
Creativity is a pretentious word. Creativity, like so many other words, has been de-valued — 'I am more creative than thou.' 'My aunt is so creative.' 'My mother is an artist too!' There are a few words that immediately make my hair stand on end. The little hair that I have left. I do what I am doing because I can't do otherwise. If that results in books or drawings or sculptures, it is because I simply follow my nature. I can’t help it. If you want to call it creative, OK, but that is meaningless. I simply am a compulsive image-maker. I have to draw, paint whatever. Do I call myself an “artist”? No. I leave that up to the beholder. Artist is to me an honorific. “Ah, Rodin, what an artist! Rembrandt? An arch-artist!” But to be an “artist” is not to smear paint on a canvas, trace lines on a paper, have exhibitions, gain an honorable mention, sell. It is something quite different from being an “artist”. The only authentic artist is the artist-within.
Most non-artists view art-making as profoundly egoistic: they have bought into the post-Romantic myth of the lonely Hero-Artist. They think that art-making is primarily a function of consciousness, of intellect, of the little self. Subject, therefore, to rational control, an act of conscious will. But in the words of writer/teacher Julia Cameron: Art is not about thinking something up. It is the opposite: getting something down. Many artists and writers have said very similar things.
Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness—I wouldn't know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness. —Aaron Copland
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. —Thomas Merton
I am here to wonder. —Goethe
The greatest formal talent is worthless if it does not serve a creativity which is capable of shaping a cosmos.
The greatness of an artist lies in the building of an inner world, and in the ability to reconcile this inner world with the outer. —Albert Einstein
Whatever I want to express in its truest meaning must emerge from within me and pass through an inner form. It cannot come from outside to the inside but must emerge from within. —Meister Eckhart
Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist. —Rene Magritte
Such artists and thinkers express, in these quotes, nondual awareness. They know that they have to wade in, elbows deep, then turn the art-making process over to Something else. There are lots of names for that Something. One of the best is the Self, the big self as opposed to the little self; another good name is the deep self, collective unconscious.
Ironic self-consciousness is inherently dualistic. One might say, inherently competitive. Ironic distancing is at root a defense mechanism against participation. To participate fully is to risk, and many little selves fear this risk. To preserve the little self, it needs to be kept aloof, cut off, distances, overlooking the field of play but not wading into it. Its end-product is intellectual and analytical dryness, a sort of creative acedia. Wordsworth's dictum that Poetry is emotion reflected in tranquility has become, in the Modernist context, all tranquility and no emotion.
One reason I find so much mainstream fiction that is so highly praised (by whom, one must always consider) to be so unreadable is because so much of it is blandly divorced from emotion. It makes you think, but it doesn't make you feel, feel an experience in your own body; and when it is intended to make you feel, the scaffolding of emotional manipulation is often obvious and plainly exposed; most novels in most popular media book clubs, such as Oprah's, never rise above this level. Analytical psychology in the lead character's internal monologue does not pull me in; nor does literary gloss. I find Bret Easton Ellis and Philip Roth equally superficial; both preserve the little self in all its labyrinthine knots; neither approach nondual awareness. (Both could stand to read less Freud and more Laing, for that matter.) Perhaps neither writer believes that nondual awareness exists; it's certainly the case that most post-Freudian-influenced literature is so mired in psychological explanation and biographical motivation that it leaves no room for contemplation, or the mysterious. E.M. Forster always had room for the mysterious in his novels and stories; most best-selling novels nowadays are puzzle-box novels, wherein a "satisfying" read always seems to mean a clear-cut ending with all the loose ends tied up neatly. As though every novel were a mystery to be solved by the last line. (This neatness of concept, this lack of dangling threads, was exactly what Virginia Woolf rebelled against in her stream-of-consciousness writing, so the trend is nothing new.) Nondual awareness is available in mainstream American literature, but usually only in small does; one of its literary masters, although I explode several literary myths to say so, was Ernest Hemingway, who more than once opined that what he left out of his stories was what mattered most; some of his stories such as "Big Two-Hearted River" are masterful evocations of nondual awareness that pull the reader into the experience rather than merely describing it. Talking about nondual awareness can be a defense mechanism because it keeps us from having to actively experience it: Roth and Ellis and novelists of their ilk only ever talk about it, they don't recreate an experience of it in the reader. American literature is dominated by this distancing and little-self ego-inflation; one of its most marked practitioners was Norman Mailer, who worked far too hard to present himself as the Hero-Author; many Big City New England celebrity-authors have fallen into similar traps, and these are mostly what we get as "mainstream fiction" nowadays. In a very different but parallel way, the "new journalism" as authored by Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, for all their stylistic innovations and contributions to literature as a whole, is also about little-self ego-inflation. When authors and news-readers and reporters become celebrities in their own rite, this is symptomatic of a culture gone hog-wild for little-self ego-inflation. Very little journalism remains unimpressed by the emperor's new clothes. Is it any wonder the readers have become as cynical and ironically distanced as the reporters, neither of whom trust the other any longer?
After trudging through this competitive and egoistic literary arena, William Blake once again provides a breath of fresh air:
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not thro' the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
Blake reminds us that our condition is circumscribed by our pre-judgments. We are born to sweet delight when we are open to what innocence opens unto us; we exist in hell and misery if we let the world dictate to us who we are.
In my opinion the most pernicious belief that non-artists carry about art-making is one already mentioned: that it requires nothing more than an act of will; that it is a mostly mental exercise, rather than a full-body process; that it is something you can just stop, when there bills to pay, because it's really nothing more than a frivolous hobby that can be set aside when there are More Important Things To Do.
But an artist can never stop. Sometimes drawing is more important than food. Food can be put off till later, when you must get the image down before it evaporates. If you can set it aside, and one must not judge those who do for they may have good reasons for doing so, then you risk turning your art-making into a hobby alone. Frederick Franck called himself an image-maker rather than an artist, but in every way he knew and experienced, and was able to communicate in his writings. this need that artists experience to make art. it's as necessary as breathing.
Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment. —Claude Monet
People don't realize what they have when they own a picture by me. Each picture is a phial with my blood. That is what has gone into it. —Pablo Picasso
Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. —Rumi
To return to an earlier point, we must remember that nondual awareness is our human birthright. This means that it is not meant to be marked off as a special experience available only to a select few. There are levels and degrees of nondual awareness. Not everyone is going to have big Red-Sea-parting visions; the vision of unity with one's dead parents that one feels when one cooks anew a favorite family meal is also a kind of nondual awareness. There are many small things that remind us of our Oneness. Simple empathy can be a good place to start one's practice, as that can lead to general compassion. There is no need to feel dualistically separated from nondual awareness as though it were special. It's very ordinary, and blessedly so. It doesn't have to be big visions that lead to mystical experiences that lead to great poetry or sublime art. It can be as simple, and as sincere, as a family gathering in a beloved setting, wherein everyone present feels that they share a common desire to be together.
Nondual awareness does not strip away our differences, our unique and individual humanness. To the contrary. What nondual awareness does do, is make all our differences valuable and worth supporting. It makes our diversity into something worth exploring, anticipating, enjoying, and celebrating. How dull indeed it would be if we were all alike. We are alike in that we're all unique. But nondual awareness shows us that while we are individual, we are One. I can celebrate your differences from me, and appreciate them with joy; and vice versa.
What I seek in poetry, in art in general, perhaps, is less ego and more nondual awareness. One wearies of self-expressive displays of the little self advertising its separateness: one tires of art that is "self-expression" and nothing more. Maybe that's good therapy, but it doesn't mean it's art. Analytical psychology has infiltrated artistic criticism to the point where everything is suspect; only irony is critically acceptable; only hidden agendas are considered authentic. Where in this is there room for sincerity? There's something wrong with an art-making culture that has become so self-conscious, in the painful way that adolescents are self-conscious, that it cannot even acknowledge sincerity without labeling it as kitsch, or worse; the literary world has become far too similar to high school. If all art is is kitsch or self-expression, where is there room for the transcendent? for the sublime? for those little experiences of nondual awareness that wake us up to a world bigger than ourselves?
That world is not outside ourselves, it is within us. Great art helps remind us it's still there. And it remains available. It never went away; it stayed at home; we're the ones who went out for a walk.
At the entrance to the meditation hall, where one leaves one's footwear before entering the hall, there is a plain little sign with a very aware message: Leave your ego with your shoes.