Dancing With The Mystery
The Tergar meditation group that I've been sitting with takes a different approach than the zen center. There's a relaxed casualness about it all from the space we sit in to the actual meditation itself. The simplicity is refreshing. There are no robes, no altar, no candles and incense. But it also gives me pause. A bowing gassho in the doorway as I enter the room is second nature, and here it's starkly out of place. The lights are bright and colorful meditation cushions dot the floor; no neat rows of black zafus and zabutans arcing around the instructor. Opening and closing recitations sound wooden compared to the rhythmic chanting voices of the zen community. Sometimes there is a small bell signaling the start of meditation; sometimes not. The same is true at the end of meditation. When there is a bell, everyone moves and stretches and talking begins immediately over the sound of the bell.
Hanging from the wall of the zendo of my old zen community is a large hand-made bell. It's approximately 12 inches tall and darkened with age. The doan (meditation time keeper) must strike the bell just so. Hit the wrong spot, or strike it too hard and it klangs with a dull, metallic noise. Hit it too softly and it's signal is lost in the expanse of the zendo. As a new doan, I wobbled back and forth for months making variously abrasive gongs and klangs to signal the beginning and end of meditation. The stillness of the zendo received whatever the bell and I gave without complaint. I was humbled by the bell, never knowing what it would say when I struck it. I admit there were times when I thought of jazzing it up, playing a little tune, to make light of my ackwardness. There was no hiding in the silence of the zendo. The bell told all. It pinged with my insecurity; it bonged with my over-confidence. It took a while, but eventually the bell and I sang together, making unique new sounds that grew more clear each time the bell was struck. With each peal of the bell you feel as though you have been struck; one's whole being vibrates with it. No one moves in the zendo until the last faint echo of the bell disappears. I'm confounded sitting in this new meditation experience that seems so casual and indifferent to the sound of the bell (when there is one). Confounded and curious to explore it all including the surprising pangs! of emotion that have come up around the new meditation approach.
Like striking the bell, I never really know what will come from my brush to the paper. There is a certain joy in not knowing, in nurturing curiosity and learning to embrace and work with whatever evolves. Forever humbled by what comes out on the paper, I'm learning to let go of expectations and paint with the flow of the water and pigment instead of muscling my way through a painting. In addition to it's luminosity, the fluidity of watercolor never stops teaching. Much like the breath in meditation, when you let go of controlling it and follow, new fountains of creative energy open up.
We can experience vibrations of sound and the rhythm of our own breath, but what of vibrations of color? Do you associate color and sound, or how about flavor or smell? Russian artist, Wassily Kandinsky wrote about the scent of colors, the tactile sensations they can evoke, even ascribing tastes to colors. (Please do not ever munch on your pigments! They are toxic!) He is said to have experienced synesthesia, a kind of mixing of the senses. Sensory words are juxtaposed for effect in poetry (like loud perfume or an icy voice); the visual artist is challenged to use his/her senses as well. Kandinsky is said to have painted music using color as counterpoint. A painter, writer and poet, Kandinsky once wrote, "The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would try to express bright yellow in the bass notes, or dark lake in the treble." I am not so musically inclined (maybe it was arrested by those 5 am piano practice sessions or the horror of recitals), so I find the idea of color vibrating as sound to be very curious indeed. Working with design elements— line, shape, value, color, pattern and size— we can create rhythms, and to fully experience these rhythms we need all of our senses. But I find it more difficult to hear these rhythms than to sense them. Curiously, as I delve into meditation, I find more and more, that distinctions between the senses blur into one whole vivid experience. It's as though we can hear with our eyes and see with our ears. "I shut my eyes in order to see," Paul Gauguin supposedly said. T. S. Elliot wrote about, "music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music." The more we paint, the more we realize the senses are not the distinct, definable things we thought they were.
If I were to imagine sound emanating from this painting, I think it's deep, quiet notes, reminiscent of the bell in the zendo. Do the yellows vibrate in the treble notes or base? It's a mixed media piece, comprised mostly of acrylic paint, and scrubbed with alcohol to reveal underlying layers of color. The density of acrylic paint smothers the surface of the paper with shiny plastic, and the alcohol dulls and dissolves the plastic creating a pitted surface opening to the colors underneath. Tough, sinewy acrylics coat the paper with a kind of plastic armor, while watercolors merge with the surface allowing the paper to breathe. They each have a unique character— perhaps one is a string quartet and the other a brass band! A brass band made of plastic instruments?
I'm curious if the more musical among you, attribute sounds to colors.