Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Uncomfortable silence as a deutero-truth

Last fall I flew to Colorado to take a Miksang photography workshop. Miksang is a Tibetan word that translates as ‘Good Eye’, and is based on the Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of the late meditation master, artist, and scholar Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.

The instructors, Michael and Julie, did a wonderful job of teaching me to see in a new way: I came back with lots of fresh and exciting images, and their way of seeing continues to inform my work. This image, for example, which I shot on Shaw last week, would be a classic Miksang piece: very simple, strong contrasts, conveying a sense of stillness...

And of course it would be perfect for that Patterns exhibit that's coming up in November. But the truth is, well -- I don't actually like it all that much. At least, not in its current state (there's always the chance I could play with it in Photoshop and discover some hidden potential).

And that's the part of being an artist that can be challenging: because coming up with something that's unique, technically and compositionally good isn't really enough. It needs to have soul, and something of the artist in it as well. And though I love this curtain, and this old rotary auction chair, and the way the sun filters through the venetian blinds to add another layer of pattern and texture to the curtain... well, it still doesn't quite do it for me.

But perhaps that's because I've been conditioned to think that an image needs to speak; that it's not enough to convey the silence and stillness of a warm summer afternoon. This morning's reading in Byron Brown's book, Soul Without Shame tells me this:

"The judge gets much of its power from your early experiences of being expected to think and produce words. It is not uncommon for a child to have an empty mind when he is absorbed in playing and interacting with his world. But too often your awareness of having no thoughts came at very unpleasant times, such as when you were expected to answer an adult's question, or you needed to remember something important, or you were so scared or upset you couldn't talk. In those situations, you may have been looked at disapprovingly, accused of hiding something, blamed for not learning, or reprimanded for being disrespectful of elders. Seldom would anyone recognize or appreciate the experience of an empty mind with no answers to what seemed like irrelevant questions.

A blank mind thus became associated with being stupid, feeling lost and alone, or experiencing fear and humiliation. So as an adult, the moment when your thoughts stop becomes a dreaded experience. It is at least embarrassing and at worst potentially damaging if it happens in situations in which you are expected to produce. Because of this, it is easy for the judge to keep you away from such moments of no-thought. The consequence is that your negative associations with empty mind cause you to reject a basic element in the experience of inner peace."

Wow. That explains a lot, doesn't it! I realize, reading this, that a lot of my inner mental machinations are all about creating something to say in the event I am asked a question or expected to explain myself. I find myself wondering if, like my older daughter, I had trouble as a young child forming phrases -- and I can hear some voice taunting me: "What's the matter; cat got your tongue?"

Well, then! No wonder it's so hard to still my mind for meditation: when you release all those thoughts, you risk the possibility of being speechless when that critical moment arises.

I've been driving my daughter's boyfriend to the ferry in the mornings -- he's gotten a summer job working for a lawyer in Seattle -- and yesterday he told me about something called "deutero-truths." A deutero-truth, according to Professor Ken Brashier of Reed College (who was my daughter and her boyfriend's advisor in the religion department at Reed) is an idea you hold but are unaware that you hold, because you've been molded since childhood to see the world a particular way.

We all have them, of course -- the most obvious one to me (and they are by definition more obvious in others than in ourselves)has always the number of grown males who are still held captive by that childhood admonition "Big boys don't cry." A deutero-truth is planted so deeply, and so early in life -- before we learn to question -- that to break from it feels like a life and death issue, and so threateningly scary that we just can't go there.

I wonder if that's why so many folks avoid or struggle with meditation: they're conditioned to think that an empty mind means stupidity and condemnation. And I feel certain that's why so many people are discomfited by new ideas -- especially religious ones. Some deeply planted deutero-truth tells them that even thinking that thought could be life-threatening -- so they just don't go there.

Perhaps this IS a lovely image. Perhaps it doesn't NEED to convey anything beyond a sunny afternoon in a quiet room. I guess I'll just need to spend some time with it and see if I can be open to its silence.


Louise Gallagher said...

Oh my -- we are in sync...

I knew of deutero-truths -- and forgot about them! So glad you reminded me. Because in my deutero-truth, that deep buried consciousness that is unconscious to my active thinking mind, these beliefs trip me up -- a lot.

And yes, it is a lovely image that conveys a sunny afternoon -- there's something mystical and almost Sufi-like about it.

Maureen said...

Sara Maitland has written that we "romanticise silence on the one hand and on the other feel that it is terrifying, dangerous to our mental health, a threat to our liberties and something to be avoided at all costs." She also asks, "Is the silence in the hearing or the speaking?"

And of the image one might ask whether its "meaning" comes through the breaking of its purported silence.

Silence, as Maitland comes to show in "A Book of Silence" is full of noise.