Friday, November 13, 2009

Hearing With Our Eyes, Seeing With Our Ears

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.


  1. I associate everything with flavor. I always get teased when I ask what "flavor" a particular candle is. And when I see colors I often associate it with some delicious food I've eaten before. I'm not sure if that's the same thing...

    I believe that our senses enrich one another. And I am always fascinated by how when one of our senses is absent the others become heightened.

  2. Melody, If you take up painting, you might like American Journey Watercolors— though definitely not edible, they have yummy names like sour lemon, apricot, coffee with cream, pomegranate, mint julip, or peachy keen. :~)

  3. I can hear music (arranged orchestra music even) when I look at objects. Especially paintings. Sometimes I hear a story being told linearly in my mind. Your painting above? It's an eerie soundtrack music you see in sci fi movies, not horror music, when you're exploring a strange peopleless and alien environment and you don't know what is really there or what they're made of. Something good, something bad.. you don't really know. But there's definitely something beyond the corner. It's a searching/exploring for a discovery. And that's when I looked at your title :D

  4. Well I had to pop by for a peek to see your grays. Firstly l love the story about the bell. It gives us deep insight into what the bell ringing is really all about, what it can tell us if we look deeply. There is a wonderful earthiness to your description. I feel like I'm right there with you in the Zendo.

    By nature am more comfortable in a relaxed setting and so in the number of years I sat with a Soto Group I never warmed to (and in fact bristled sometimes) at the formality of it all.

    I love your new piece too! For me it is always about feeling when I look at something, not even just artwork. This piece speaks of strength and confidence. I see yours, as a painter when I look at this piece. Nothing tentative here. It is also wonderful and ethereal. It speaks to me of mystery. I love the use of the yellow and deep grays. I love the angularity.

  5. I was "struck" :) by your description of your experience at the Zendo: quietly humbling, openness, reverence, sacredness, vulnerability, everything seen, heard and accepted, including the frailties. Beautiful yet frightening. There also seems to be a recognition of and reverence for "the sacred" here - that sense of *awareness* of what is really present, in contrast to the "casualness" of your new group that you describe.

    I was particularly "struck" by your phrase: "Forever humbled by what comes out on paper." There was a familiar note that sounded when I read that!

    I haven't paid much attention to color and sound, but I'm going to pay attention now! What a wonderful exercise in *awareness*! I would say that sound has color for me, and color has a fragrance, especially the color purple has a distinct odor.

    In your painting I see deeper gold hues that have a sense of a deeper tone, like the gong of a large bell, rather than the tinkling sound of the brighter yellows... But they're all playing a wonderful symphony together now that I'm aware :) Christine

  6. The sound of an orchestra warming up, tuning, cacophonous. Nothing is quite in place yet. Nothing is supposed to be. The structures are there, and the colors, the textures, the light and the shadows. Everything is there, and yet it as yet all moves, all vibrates. There is no real telling how it will play, individually or as a whole. Each piece seems content preparing itself, at most half listening to a neighbor for perspective.

    And then there is our single figure, Wolf. Audience, conductor, theme? Perhaps Wolf is in fact the usher, showing us early into the disconcerted hall? Is there howling from this cliff edge? A conductor's call to attention? Or it could be that this is more of an Ornette Coleman composition (he made forays into classical composition)- Wolf is like a hiccup, a nexus point of (for) improvisational chaos?

    I don't know. I like it though. 100% uncertainty. A life of ringing bells in the zendo, missing bells in the ashram(?), missing bells in the zendo and ringing them in the ashram(?). The world that exists in (as) the shadows to T.S. Eliot's construction. The other side of the four quartets, where he speaks of the dark, dark, dark, but abandons us who must remain making sense of the penumbra.

  7. Hi all! Your comments inspire me. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

  8. In the Torah, there is a moment when the people are standing at the foot of Mt Sinai (natan Torah-giving of the Torah)...when the AWE of experiencing God is described as sound and sights becoming one. I know when I sit in spiritual direction that often I will receive a vision and a piece of wisdom (not exactly sound) but certainly a knowing that I am able to understand and express in words pretty much simultaneously...I think a painting, a view of nature, a piece of music that resonates deep in our hearts and bodies has the potential to bring us to that same state of Awe...the same is true of the stillness of meditation at times (which is essentially spiritual direction).

    So not always, but sometimes I have experience multiple sensory experiences that become ONE expansive KNOWING.

    gentle steps,