We all do things, things that reflect our inner nature, things that allow others to perceive who we really are. Some people dress in interesting ways, other shout creative obscenities at people on the road, some people decorate their houses, while others fill them with things they have collected that reflect some deep resonance within their mind. We all find ways of expressing our secret, non-verbal self.
Like water flowing down a stream reflecting sunlight into the trees we all reflect our inner being onto the outer world for others to appreciate or not. I paint, my wife sews, my baby boy blows complicated raspberries with his tongue. We are all complex intersections of chemistry and physics and thus are bound to create interesting effects on the world, effects that others might want to trace back, to figure out something about how the person who created that effect works. Therefore, I feel like the best way to improve my art is to make myself into a more interesting person, the best way to have others appreciate my reflection on the world is to become the most complex, beautiful and positive pattern that I can be.
This is an oversimplification of course implying choice where there is none; people increase in complexity as a function of existence. But for the sake of clarity of explanation let's just say that for better or worse, through a combination of shamanic practices and Buddhist meditation I have achieved a certain level of non-symbolic, non-dualistic thought that sees underneath the illusions we create to have normal societal interactions and to understand the world in the easiest way, I think this more complex understanding of the interactions of reality would be entertaining or helpful to others so I try to create my paintings in such a way as to help others see this in me as easily as possible and maybe adopt it for themselves.
I should unpack that idea a little. By non-symbolic I mean that what we typically perceive is not reality as it is, but as it is convenient to our brain's picture of the world to see. So instead of 'reality' and I use that word loosely, we see flashes of things and then our brain fills in the gaps in our hurried perception with the symbolic understanding we developed in our youth in order to make sense of an incredibly complex vibrational universe.
By non-dual I am referring to the artificial dualities we have been evolutionarily pre-programmed to create in order to evaluate the dangers of the world, it greatly simplifies our hormonal responses to stimuli if our brain can put things into simple dualistic categories like us and them, good or evil, love or hate, ultimately all dualities are false though; nothing is dual because nothing is separate, everything is complex and enmeshed, however, the idea of duality becomes so ingrained into our brain's structural matrix that it is almost impossible to free oneself from of it completely.
Finally the illusion I am talking about is the illusion that the world that we perceive bears any connection to the world that is and that we exist as a separate, thinking entity from the universe which defines and creates us and to which we are inextricably bound. Ask yourself, who makes metal feel cold on a blustery winter’s day? Who decides that water is wet? Who reds the roses, and makes them smell sweetly by any name? You might be surprised to find the answer to all of these questions is: you do.
So I paint and I write and I create a thousand, thousand reflections within the world not because I choose to but because it is my nature, I hope they delight the brains of those trapped in the illusion they have created but I cannot say who I really hope they delight, perhaps the universe itself. In the end we are all just complex knots in the weave of the fabric of the universe and ultimately there is no point where I stop and you start. Either way I have no more choice about creating patterns on the world then the stream does, existence is interaction and interaction produces effects and this is the truth of being.
So that is the starting point and the core of this exploration and of course I will expound on what I have written here as we get into the details of my practice. Without further ado let’s get right into the specifics with a look at what I paint.
Whenever you tell someone you are an artist, the first question they invariably ask is, “Oh, really! What do you paint?” Honestly I never know how to answer this question but maybe that is what makes this a good place to start. So let's begin to look at the work. I have changed and evolved my painting practice quite a bit during my time in university, but as I come to the end of my time here, I find myself returning to the beginning, returning to the sort of wild, bright chaos that characterized my paintings before I entered school. This is not a rejection of what I have learned; rather it is a reification of who I am.
The work may be technically more refined now but to be honest I am trying to shed the veneer of the professional painter and allow the paintings to be what they are, to speak from the heart. Each painting serves as a guidepost on a road we are all travelling, sometimes they mark places I have already passed and sometimes I feel that the work has gotten ahead of me and drags me forward. I should probably note that I have been consciously traversing this path for over twenty years.
The road is the path of enlightenment, and attention should be paid here to the wording, the path of enlightenment, not, the path to enlightenment, this is a journey along a deeper and more profound understanding of our selves and the universe and the interaction between awareness and being. The path is complicated and has many pitfalls to get over and mountains to summit. Ironically we carry the destination within us as we walk it, so it is hard not to be linguistically enigmatic when discussing these concepts that are in some way beyond language. Actually I think this is one of the main advantages of pictorial representation, it can get behind language, behind thinking and act directly on understanding or even fundamental reality in a way that words can’t.
This is of course not a new idea, Buddhist art has a very long history indeed as a method of transforming consciousness and the idea of using a pictorial representation to actually evoke a specific change in the world dates back to the very beginning of painting on cave walls. I think the art world has, primarily due to the monetization of art, forgotten that art is a transformational process and I am not talking about just changing the artist or even the viewer but about how art can physically change the world.
So getting back to my paintings, when I started school I was getting bogged down in aesthetics, technique and trying to say something, not to mention trying to be popular or edgy or famous just like most other art students I suppose. I was adrift in the meaninglessness and anachronism of the modern art scene. Aesthetics seems linked to bourgeois cultural preferences and the grim science of sales, while political or challenging art faces a hopeless paradox of only being collected and shown by the people and institutions it rails against.
Indeed there is nothing capitalism does better then co-opting it's most vocal critics and merchandising them. So where does that leave an artist who needs to create but doesn't want to participate in a system that furthers the gap between the powerful and the powerless. I have been meditating and developing spiritually as a Buddhist for many years but I never connected that practice to my painting. It wasn’t until I was called to shamanic work and began those more esoteric practices that I began to see a way to link my work and my inner awareness.
Painting can be more then an aesthetic exploration or as is so common today a kind of silly one line joke or visual gag it can even be more then pointed social commentary. I know it is easy to dismiss someone in this post-enlightenment, rationalist world as a kook or a crazy person or an idiot if they believe in what people might call magical or non-scientific interactions, but at its core good art rejects consensual reality and substitutes its own anyway.
Art, even at its most faithfully reproductive, is still selected by the will of the artist to have some effect on other people whether to move them emotionally or get them to think or whatever. I just take this a step further and paint with the aim of changing not just the viewer but the non-viewer as well and by non-viewer, I should say, I don’t just mean people who haven’t seen the painting but are still influenced by it, but also that which cannot see in ways we understand easily such as the earth or the trees. Even this isn’t particularly controversial, simply imagine you go to a friends house and they have a terribly landscaped backyard, you paint a picture of how perfect and beautiful it could look with a little landscaping and, inspired, they do it; voila your painting has changed a piece of the earth.
By painting ritualistically, I aim to accomplish this same idea even if no other person ever sees the work and that is where the magic happens. I do make heavy use of Jungian arch-types and the kind of prototypical storylines you might find in the works of Joseph Campbell as way of linking my work into the sort of collective consciousness of humanity but I also incorporate themes I feel are recognizable to the world itself. The work aims to subtly elevate that collective consciousness to make the world a better place whether through specific acts as in some of my paintings where there is a direct effect that is perceptible as I paint the piece or through a general vibration of kindness and love, which is painted into others.
I feel like every painting is an opportunity for real change and I no longer embark on a new painting casually. That is not to say that I imagine what I want to change in the world or that I could think through consciously the ramifications of that change, that is not really within the scope of the human mind although it would certainly have you believe that it is. It is actually quite amazing how our brains can be so powerfully convinced to want what is against our real interests, I suppose this is most obvious when we look at how the most powerless in society so often vote against their interests to elect those who are obviously interested primarily in increasing the power of the most powerful.
Instead of falling into that trap I allow my egoic self, the part of my mind that thinks it understands the word, to become dormant through certain secret ritual practices which let’s my awareness rise to a higher plane, it is there, free of the constraints on knowledge and the illusion of separation that my awareness can create the image that reality needs to effect change rather then the one I might want personally. I think it is very important that the work is not about “me” or what I would want but rather comes from a totally different perspective.
The work is really just away for existence to heal itself, as is the nature of all shamanic practice. To try to understand the work beyond that, or to somehow gauge the effects of the work might be a fun party game or an interesting examination of some inner workings of consciousness but ultimately it is a waste of time. The work is what it is and does what needs to be done, even what happens to it after it is painted is not really important, what matters is that it was painted. That said I suppose I should move on to my methodology.
So, I alluded to secret rituals in the previous part of the paper and those will stay secret I am afraid for a few reasons that I will get into later but I will outline my general practice and how I make art.
The process begins… well that is sort of false, the process has no beginning or ending it is part of the flow of existence but let’s for the sake of brevity try to apply some good monkey-mind thinking as the Buddhists like to say and chop up reality into a kind of comprehensible size, keeping in mind that doing so is a somewhat damaging act which will have to be paid for later. So the process can be imagined as beginning with my daily meditation, wherein I meditate on the transitory nature of reality or the nature of non-being or compassion for an hour or so each morning.
Doing this enables me to keep perspective on the fleeting nature of my thoughts and physical sensations, which in turn helps uncover the eternality of awareness. As I walk around in my day-to-day existence I collect stuff, usually natural, like pinecones and seashells and interesting seedpods; sometimes I take photographs of something that strikes me and I pin them to my studio wall. At the beginning of each lunar month, I will then prepare my studio: I clean, set out canvases of different sizes; lay out the things I have collected.
I cleanse the space with burned sage and other herbs and I will ask for the space to be made sacred and blessed. I am mostly asking myself here to make the space sacred because if I treat it as such then I will approach the work skillfully and with the right intentions and mindset. It is very easy to get sucked into day-to-day little dramas that make up life if you have not made a place and declared it sacred and solely for one purpose. It is also for this reason I do not allow others into my workspace, I do not want it to be involved in the mundane ebb-and-flow of life. Then I let myself be with the space for a few days not doing anything in particular until a feeling of reverence sets in and then I know it is time to begin.
I begin by grinding stone into pigment with a mortar and pestle, as I do this I recite tantric mantras from the Bön Buddhist tradition to invoke the spirits and allow them a channel into this world through the paint, I mix in sacred poppy oil and make it into paint. I should say that I don’t make enough paint to paint each painting, far from it; I just make a dab to start off each painting. I then perform certain shamanic rituals, which I am not going to share as they are both personal and incomprehensible, not because you are not smart or clever enough but because they are secrets that keep themselves from those who are uninitiated.
Like reincarnation to the non-Buddhist who might say if you don’t have your memories or your thoughts or your body then what does it matter if you are reincarnated or not. It matters; it is just not easy to put into words why if you have never risen above your ego. Anyway during this time I enter into a sort of trance state and in this state of sort of pure naïveté I begin painting, sometimes just one, sometimes several, canvases.
This trance state lasts for an entire day and is very grueling, I am forced to confront my death every time at the beginning and then I must decide every time to return to this life at the end. When I exit the trance I will have the start of one or more paintings if I have been successful, these paintings will then over time basically paint themselves with my help. Sometimes a painting will go through repeated trance sessions before it is complete. Generally when I finish a painting I take a couple of days to relax and re-center myself.
Sometimes I also paint in my spare time, this painting is pursued recreationally and doesn’t carry the internal spiritual weight I put into my shamanic work but it is also important to me and is generally much more personal. To be honest a case could be made that even these paintings form an important cathartic release for me and thus are just as much about healing as the ritual works but humans like to draw lines and create false divisions so that is what I am doing. Which I guess brings me full circle into trying to explain why I started doing this and what does it mean for me to create these shamanic works.
I am going to be brutally honest here even knowing the risk involved in admitting to contact with spiritual truth. I would also like to say that I am not claiming any knowledge that isn't accessible to anyone else, only perhaps a more direct visceral experience of that knowledge. I feel it is important to understanding what drives me as a painter. Hopefully anyone who might wish to challenge my sanity will just file me under the usual category of eccentric artist.
So that said, I was first called to become a spiritual seeker when I was a young man around age nineteen. I was backpacking through Europe when I was struck with an incredibly intense vision that lasted an entire night in one sense and several thousand years in another. I saw myself born into a thousand-thousand past lives each time I offered myself the chance to be free of the cycle of rebirth and each time I decided at the last moment to return and help others rather than freeing myself.
It was impossible to say if I was truly motivated by compassion as it felt to me or if it was a tiny lingering kernel of fear of the unknown that kept me coming back. Towards the end of the ordeal I realized that I could free myself in this life from the cycle right then if I just kept vigil through the night under the streetlamp. I knew that if I could stay in that circle of light until dawn I would be free. I stood there, weeping in the street staring up into the light until about four in the morning when I had another epiphany. People would come up to me as I stood there with tears pouring down my face and ask what was wrong and I could only say, “I’m crying for all of us!” Mara, a sort of shape shifting devil figure from Buddhist lore, also visited me several times during that long night, always trying to get me out of that circle of light.
Sometimes he would bring a beautiful woman who would invite me to come in for a drink, other times he would pose as a concerned shop keeper who would try to shoo me away or threaten to call the police, once as a motherly woman offering to cook me a nice meal. Still I persevered until as I mentioned earlier I had an epiphany: I suddenly realized that it was meaningless to achieve nirvana. I realized that if I was just a part of the totality of existence then removing my perceived self to nirvana, or oblivion, or whatever comes at the end of being, would just be removing a small part of the universe and would in fact be damaging to the remaining totality.
It is only through the enlightenment of all things that we can be truly free of the karmic cycle. I dedicated myself right then and there to that goal. I also realized that to help guide the way toward the end, I had to understand other’s journeys along the path. The only way I could do this was to give myself over to the pollution of human desire. Still, I wonder: I wonder if it was an excuse, I wonder if it was wise, I wonder if it was real at all or if that thought is just another barrier thrown up by fear. I could hardly make sense of what happened that night but it set me on a path that has lead me here. I have had many visions since and I now understand more things more deeply, I know that the Mara I faced was just another part of myself that was afraid of facing change and I have come to realize that doubt and fear and even knowledge and certainty are mere illusions, they are created by us in order to misdirect our awareness from the parts of ourselves we cannot yet face.
In fact, recently I was at a shamanic gathering talking to one of the others and I told him about how I had walked a path into this mountain forest in Romania and I had reached the place where the stream I was following went underground and someone had placed a strange statue to mark the spot and I just knew right down to my bones that I faced again a choice at that point to continue into the woods and leave my life as I knew it behind or to return to the fairly comfortable life I know. I ventured just a bit farther and I saw something I don't wish to discuss that changed me profoundly, but then I still chose to come back. I believe that is the heart of what a shaman or an artist is, one who goes past the edge (and we have created so, so many edges for ourselves, so many boundaries in an attempt to prove we are distinct ,separate, beings) and then still manages to come back to tell others about what they have seen.
He told me that if I had continued up into the woods what would have happened, I would have continued to change profoundly perhaps even into something unrecognizable and a new life would have begun which would be different from the life I have now but not better or worse. He pointed out that all turnings are just different paths to the same place and even if you turn back you still go forward. Indeed there is a great pleasure in taking the long familiar road into the unknown, it is this thought that lies at the heart of my practice. I do not paint to die or even to practice and prepare for death although that is a part of my life as a human being; instead I paint to make life, that grand, slow, road into the unknown, even more pleasant and beautiful.
I paint to comfort our troubled spirits with the knowledge that yes there are places from which you cannot easily turn back but those paths only lead onward. I paint to heal the wounds in the universe caused by its own fear and ignorance.
Grandiose I know, but just as every tiny platelet that settles into a wound contributes to its closure so to do my tiny contributions matter. This is art therapy on a universal scale, which because of the fractal nature of existence means it is also on a personal scale. Not for immortality, rather to create a pleasant journey into the unknown. Change happens and change can be very frightening, so I would like to create a change that people can be excited about rather than one they dread. I want a positive evolution not the crazy back-and-forth swings caused by entitlement and retribution and revenge.
Indulge me for just one more thought experiment. Imagine that time was meaningless. Imagine that you had no one to place limits on your imagination or memory and thus they had no limits. Now imagine you blink into existence or maybe there was never a time when you didn't exist, still, imagine not knowing anything, not even if your existence is momentary or eternal. You have no external senses, only an awareness, linked to an imagination and a powerful sense of being alone. Profoundly alone, even if there are others surrounding you on all sides, you have no way to know.
Imagine the inner world you might create, imagine how it might develop, how it might grow in complexity. At the core of this inner fantasy though, no matter how delightful the internal worlds you might create, there would always remain three profound, practically un-faceable truths, you are alone, you do not know when your end will come or what will happen after, and nothing you do matters in any meaningfully external way. You would probably create distractions and games and even villains to overcome, so as not to face these truths.
But eventually you might grow to accept them, even welcome them as being a part of you, thus allowing yourself to grow beyond distraction and fear to become something more, something present and enlightened. Something calm that accepts ignorance as a part of being. What you are imagining is of course what you are, the universe. We are all inescapably part of the universe, reflections of the universal consciousness.
It is our duty to begin to accept these terrors and face them so that the universe that we reflect might face them as well. It is only through overcoming this existential angst that we can stop throwing up barriers to seeing the totality of our being and distractions to just being. So that is what I am doing and here we come to my call to action. Treat this paper as a rallying cry to make life better for those around you by facing your personal demons and embracing them as simply an immature part of yourself, the Buddhists call this first confrontation with the dark parts of one’s own mind; the long night.
Though it can take years to pass through, but if you can begin to move past it and eventually even accept these fundamental truths, we can all have a beautiful, smooth, journey through life; a life filled with the basic joy and the pleasure of simply being! Allow misfortune, pain and suffering to be positively transformational experiences. Turn to face the darkness and see it for what it is, just another part of you. Indeed, one can go farther and come to realize that even physical pleasure is just a kind of masturbation, just the immature mind, whistling into the darkness to distract itself from its own fear.
The only truly satisfying pleasure comes from within and is generated by contentment with the self. This is information most of us already know. We needn't look to the Buddha or Heidegger or Nietzsche; almost any decent philosopher knows these things, but knowing is a tricky word. You can be aware of something intellectually without really facing the reality of what that knowledge means in practice. Humans are like intellectual caterpillars, spinning cocoons of self-referential ideas that cannot be anchored to anything fundamental until we are completely surrounded and enclosed in our own cocoon of ideas about the world.
This is an important part of our spiritual development I think but it isn't until we metamorphose and break free of that dense cocoon of things we think we know that we can take flight and just be free in the world. Ultimately, I paint and I enjoy it, it is a part of who and what I am in this moment. I cannot offer more or less then that.