One Gift of the Arts is Help Us See with A Diversity of Eyes

It all started one night after getting totally engrossed in viewing Japanese woodblock prints, particularly the night scenes by Kawase Hasui. Hasui was one of Japan’s most prominent and prolific printmakers who died in 1957. He created landscapes that beautifully merged humans⎼ their homes, boats, shrines, castles, and temples⎼ into the land around them.

 

I was looking through several paintings and when one stood out, I’d wonder why that was so. I’d imagine myself in the depicted scene or sit with the mood the print and my seeing of the print created.

 

One night scene was of the Chuson-ji Temple, in the town of Hiraizumi, Japan. A long series of wide steps leads up through trees to the temple. There is moonlight and a bright star, but no moon. I allowed myself to slow down, stop rushing, and just linger on the scene, to sort of let my eyes feel the steps so I could walk up them and reach the building itself.

 

Then I’d close my eyes and let the scene rest inside me, before opening them again to allow whatever new details I had noticed enter the picture. By touching in this mindful way, we are touched; we feel what we see. The artwork has more dimension. I learned this practice at a retreat organized by psychotherapist Lawrence Leshan, and by The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, by Frederick Franck.

 

After doing this for a few hours, I drove into town to buy groceries. Along the way, the scenery took on a totally new quality. The homes surrounded by trees, the lights amidst the dark, the moon over the hillside⎼ one minute, the scene around me was the physical road and trees. The next, a beautiful portrait of the same.

 

A few days later, in the daytime, a similar experience occurred. As I walked up the rural road where I live, I saw as I might normally see⎼ light breaking through the hillside forest roof and bouncing off the leaves of the trees ⎼ and then as Hasui might paint it. By viewing the art, my eyes were tuned to beauty; I now had two sets of eyes, two ways of seeing.

 

Hasui seemed fascinated with how not just art was a creation, but vision itself. He was almost too prolific. He painted the same scene in different times of day and different seasons. There are at least three renditions of the Chuson-ji Temple, for example⎼ one at night, one on a spring day, another in the snow. But what we see in each painting is one moment; we see each instant as a once in a lifetime event.

 

We can see how everything changes or is change itself. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, said: “Reality is flowing.  This does not mean that everything moves, changes, and becomes; science and common experience tell us that.  It means movement, becoming, change is everything there is, there is nothing else.  There are no things that move and change and become; everything is movement, is change.”

 

The beautiful red temples Hasui painted were not just an external scene he perceived but an element of the artist, his history and mood, the time of day, the weather and quality of light, the remnants of the past in the present. We are not a being locked in a wall of skin, but one movement in a universe dancing itself into being….

 

**To see the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

The Joy of a Tango in the Morning: Even Our Shadow Can Surprise Us

Despite the recent horrendous killings in Boulder and Atlanta,  there were two moments this week when somehow I broke out into a deep smile and dance. Somehow, we must find joy between the sadness.

 

There have been so many large scale downs and ups in recent years. January 6th was an historic down, January 20th an exciting up. Before the inauguration, I too often felt fright, anger, revulsion, grief and sadness about our world.  I had taken refuge from the viruses of DT and COVID in friendships, meditation, creativity, political action and exercise.  But this week, two seemingly small events turned moments of my life from a waltz to a tango.

 

The fact that it’s spring and it feels like multiple winters are ending at once certainly has turned up the volume on life. On Sunday, a blog of mine that referenced morning light and sounds was going to be published and I wanted a photo of the morning to put on my website. So I woke up and went for an early walk. I walked for maybe an hour and a half, taking twenty or so photos, not trying to capture but simply express the moment. And what a moment it was. The clear, almost baby blue of the sky. The freshness of it all. The expansiveness.

 

Part of the joy was the newness. I usually walk in the late afternoon, when the sun is already partly hidden by the hills. But not today. Today I was not caught up in doing things in the house or in cold shadows.

 

Over the last year, I have walked this road so many times, almost every single day, and the familiarity has transformed it into something else, not just a home, but a way of greeting myself. On a steep section of the road, a tree stood on the edge of the bank, three feet of roots exposed, it’s inside turned out. There is an old stone foundation just beyond the pine forest that was abandoned decades, maybe a century ago, a house-sized unknown reminding anyone who looked that even here, where now there is forest, there is a human past.

 

Sometimes, I get lost in thought as I walk. I’d remember passing an old tree that is half rotted, with a metal fence growing through its belly. And then I’m 200 feet up the road, in the oak and maple wood, where an old house lies snapped in half, like some giant named age and abandonment had just grabbed both ends and broke it in half over his knee. I take a few breaths and continue.

 

And then, around a bend in the road, between two trees, I saw my own shadow. It surprised me. It had been tailing me all along but because of the angle of the sun relative to the road I hadn’t seen it. Now, what had been behind me was in front. And my focus deepened. Any thoughts that arose sprouted into reminders to look around me at the snowdrops and other new flowers, or to listen to the sound of water running in the streams and ditches along the road….

 

*To read the whole article, please go to The Good Men Project.

The Arts Are Essential for a Good Education

For several years now, starting in the late 1990s and escalating since the last recession, arts programs have been cut throughout the country. This is especially true with drama and dance, but is also true with music and visual arts. The cuts are even more severe in schools serving mostly poor and minority children. This is extremely shortsighted. For many children, the arts provide a doorway into learning and the motivation needed to graduate. It elevates school to a place where students can come alive and see their concerns and interests reflected in the curriculum. It provides a vehicle for developing creativity and imagination. Reports show that schools with “arts-rich learning environments outperform their peers in arts deficient schools.”

 

The arts provide a more direct entrance into understanding and caring about others than any other discipline. They provide unique lessons about personal identity and the power to affect others. A play or a novel, for example, takes the reader inside the mind of the characters. As such, the arts provide one of the best ways to embed compassion into the curriculum.

 

The arts, whether it be the ancient dramas of the Greeks or modern movies, teach us how to understand our world. The ancient Athenians recognized this clearly. They led a life amazingly social and public. Unlike us, who view our emotions as individual, personal and essentially hidden, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that for the Greeks, “moods were public and shared.” Emotions were visitations by the gods of the community. Being so social, they needed a way to purge those emotions (other than going to war). They lived in a violent time. So, at the height of the Athenian democracy, citizens were paid to go to the theatre. ‘Catharsis’ comes from the Greek ‘katharis’ meaning purification or cleansing. According to Thomas Cahill, in earlier times in Greece, drama developed from a choral performance to staged action. There were only two parts in a play: the soloist, often in a costume and sometimes with a mask, who stepped onto the stage to tell a story, and the chorus itself, which would comment on the story and play the role of the community. The audience would listen reverently to the soloist but join in the choral responses, which they often memorized. It was a ritual. ‘Liturgy’ (‘leitourgia’ means the “work of the public”) was the Greek word for this interaction. Through feeling emotions evoked through the play, the audience was educated about how to live; stored up collective emotions were purged and social tensions relieved.

 

In an earlier blog, I talked about the mirror neuron systems and how communication is not just about expressing ourselves but connecting with others. A conversation takes at least two people; to speak with another person, you have to imagine or feel who the other person is or you can’t speak to them. When you try to speak and only hear your own voice, you are hearing the voice of disconnection, and the hunger for connection. A conversation without empathy is a monologue. The Greeks joined with others in liturgy. Today, you need to find your own way to make this connection.

 

Every fall, my school would produce a series of short or one act plays. The show was a greatly anticipated community event that lasted only one night and was coordinated with a fundraising spaghetti dinner. The theatre would often be full, standing room only. Student MCs would develop their own routines to introduce each play and whip up the enthusiasm of the audience. Especially in the earlier years, students would often write or improvise their own short plays. To the degree that the actors would feel and speak the part, the audience would live the story along with them. The energy was heightened for the audience by the fact that many were family or friends of the cast. I remember one night in particular. One of the actors was an extremely shy student who in ordinary life hardly ever spoke up. Yet here he was, striding boldly across the stage, a smile on his face. With every step that he took, the audience could feel him breaking free of his psychological inhibitions. They cheered him on, taking joy in his achievement. That was connection.

 

Keith Oatley takes this analysis a step further. Art allows us to not only feel what others feel, but feel without a layer of self-interest. When we watch a drama or movie or read a novel, we can identify with the protagonist, feel her feelings, yet also, in a more developed work of art, also feel for the antagonist. We can be interested yet impartial and thus have the opportunity to study the affects and moral dimensions of our emotions. In this way, the arts are a school for citizenship where we refine and enhance our capacity for empathy. Cut the arts and you cut one of our greatest tools for teaching students how to be moral, responsible, hopefully compassionate members of a community.

 

How do you teach the arts so empathy and compassion are emphasized?

 

[This is an updated version of an older blog.]

 

*The art is from Akrotiri, a 4,000 year old city on what is now Santorini, Greece.

Embedding Compassion In The Curriculum Part C: The Arts, Drama

Arts education is being cut in school districts throughout the country. This is extremely shortsighted. For many children, the arts provide a doorway into learning itself and the motivation needed to graduate. It makes school something more than mere work, but a place where students can come alive and see their lives reflected in the curriculum.

 

The arts provide a more direct entrance into understanding and caring about the experience of others than any other discipline. The arts provide unique lessons about personal identity and the power to affect others. As such, the arts provide one of the best ways to embed compassion into the curriculum.

 

The arts, whether it be the ancient dramas of the Greeks or our movies today, teach us about facing our world. For the ancient Athenians, the role of the arts, particularly drama, was clearly recognized. They led a life amazingly social and public. Unlike us, who view our emotions as individual, personal and essentially hidden, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that for the Greeks, “moods were public and shared.” Emotions were visitations by the gods of the community. Being so social, they needed a way to purge those emotions (other than going to war). They lived in a violent time. So, at the height of the Athenian democracy, citizens were paid to go to the theatre. ‘Catharsis’ comes from the Greek ‘katharis’ meaning purification or cleansing. In fact, according to Thomas Cahill, in earlier times in Greece, when drama was developing from a choral performance to staged action, there were only two parts in a play: the soloist, often in a costume and sometimes with a mask who stepped onto the stage to tell a story, and the chorus itself, which would comment on the story and play the role of the community. The audience would listen reverently to the soloist but join in the choral responses, which they often memorized. It was a ritual. ‘Leitourgia’ (meaning “work of the public”) was the ancient Greek word for this audience-choral interaction and the origin of our modern word ‘liturgy.’ Through feeling the emotions evoked through the play, the audience was educated about how to live, and stored up collective emotions were purged and social tensions relieved.

 

In an earlier blog I talked about how communication is not just about expressing ourselves but connecting with others. A conversation takes at least two; to speak with another person, I have to imagine or feel who the other person is or I can’t speak to them. When we try to speak and only hear our own voice, we are hearing the voice of disconnection, and the hunger for connection. The Greeks joined with others in liturgy. Today, we have different practices.

 

In my school, in the fall, we always did a series of short or one act plays. The show became a greatly anticipated community event that lasted only one night and was coordinated with a fundraising spaghetti dinner. The theatre would often be full, standing room only. Student MCs would develop their own routines to introduce each play and whip up the enthusiasm of the audience. To the degree that the actors would feel and speak the part, the audience would live the story along with them. The energy was heightened for the audience by the fact that many knew the cast members personally. I remember one night. One actor was an extremely shy student who in ordinary life hardly ever spoke up. During the show he seemed to break free from some inner restraint and fully inhabited his role. He strode boldly across the stage and the audience cheered on each step that he took.  That was connection.

 

Keith Oatley takes this analysis a step further. Art allows us to not only feel what others feel, but feel without a layer of self-interest. When we watch a drama or movie or read a novel, we can identify with the protagonist, feel her feelings, yet also, in a more developed work of art, also feel for the antagonist. We can be interested yet impartial and thus have the opportunity to study the affects and moral dimensions of our emotions. In this way, the arts are a school for citizenship where we refine and enhance our capacity for empathy. Cut the arts and you cut one of our greatest tools for teaching students how to be moral, responsible, hopefully compassionate members of a community.