On the Sofa with MorrisGraves and Paul
Exploring Presence in Art and Music Education Class Settings
P: Hi Morris, Welcome to the “On the Sofa” section of the Room4Truth blog. It is really nice that you can be here today. It seems that we could talk about the topic of the arts today, if you are willing, considering that you have a visual arts education background, and I am in music education.
M: Thank you, Paul for inviting me here. I am very delighted to share this time with you. And I would certainly be interested in talking about the arts with you.
P: That is great. We have both already posted some things about the arts on the ETTV forum, so perhaps, we could say some things here that would give the overview of the ways that arts can be a “vessel” as Eckhart has called it, for the embodiment of the life energy, as it applies to the areas that each of us is familiar. In my case, that would mean music, and for you, the visual arts. Does this seem like a good way to proceed?
M: Yes, this is an excellent way to proceed. Your use of the word “overview” is perfect. It implies a perspective from above, and from the standpoint of Eckhart’s comment of the arts as a vessel, it is clear that he is talking about a spiritual perspective on the arts. Traditionally, a spiritual perspective has been a religious one, and there is more religious art in the history of art than any other kind. But we know that Eckhart is not talking about religious art necessarily. I think I recall Eckhart once saying that spiritual is our true nature; spirituality is not an ethereal state somewhere. So to be a human being is to know spirituality as one’s very nature. Having said that, the arts become a vessel into which our true nature is poured. That’s just one way of looking at it.
P: Today, I look at the day to day encounters that I have with music making, which means working with middle and high school students in the public school where I teach. It certainly seems to be a real contrast from any concept of “religious” music, as you say also. But having studied Eckhart, and looking into the possibility of bringing this quality of presence into the daily, ordinary creation of art, i.e., music, in my case, I have found that the spiritual dimension is one that is quite available in this context. There is an excellent posting here in this blog by Michaela about “Musica Sacra,” however, that is not what either of us seem to be exploring here. Rather, I want to suggest that there are ways to bring presence through the music we are playing, no matter what it is. The portal for music, as you have suggested elsewhere, is silence itself. When I get my school band ready to play, I simply make sure there is a silent space before I actually give the “downbeat.” In this space, I connect to the alive sense within myself, and allow the body to feel what is there in that moment. I will sometimes remind the students that the silence, with its incidental room noises like blowing fans and gentle squeaks of chairs, is the background “canvas” where our musical sounds will be placed. Therefore, I turn my attention, my alertness, to what is, in the moment, and allow the art to emerge from that starting point.
How would you direct your students to approach their creations in painting or drawing?
M: It is wonderful to hear you talk about entering presence through silence and stillness, and inviting the band to go there with you. I would love to be in your band! An interesting thing about teaching art is that the moment they start creating, they enter the Now automatically. In preparation, before we start, I tell the class that I am not judging their art, or them. I seek to put them at ease. The main obstacle to the art student is the voice in the head. To eliminate the voice in the head is very similar to your use of silence, but in the art class the noise, as it were, is always in their heads. In other words, it is most easy for students of art to enter the creative flow when they have learned to quiet the mind. So, I let them start painting, and a little while later someone may say, “This is so wonderful, the time has just flown by.” That allows me the opportunity to talk about entering presence; that what they are feeling, that wonderfulness, is who they are. Time disappears, self disappears, and there is this beautiful flow of life. Then, shortly, another one will say, “Yikes, my art is so ugly, it’s a mess, I hate it.” Then that allows me to talk about another aspect of presence; that chaos is ok. It is just an opinion, a mental concept, that makes your art seem ugly and a mess. But in reality, I encourage them to see that the art is just in the state that it is in. There is nothing wrong with it. It is only your judgements that make it a problem, and your judgement is ok too. But we are learning to be artists so we are not fooled by what our minds try to tell us. We talk about this a lot, and it seems to help. It is well known in art education that verbalization is contrary to visualization. It is difficult to do both simultaneously. Another way we enter presence is by the practice of observing the world without having an inner commentary about it. Just look at the world and appreciate it. “Drink the world in with your eyes,” I tell them. Let appreciation flow out of you and into the world you see. And they love exploring this exercise.
P: So many of your points resonate with feelings I have about musical experience, and presence as well. I consider my own visual artistic abilities to be not so well developed, but I know I would feel at home in your class, and able to do something joyful.
When you mention the “voice in the head,” you bring up a very good issue that affects musical performance, and the ability to sense the present moment in general. Musical rehearsal involves a bit of “fixing” problems. There is no way around the fact that we find things in band rehearsal that can be done in a “better” way. But, this is where Eckhart’s teachings are once again quite helpful. First of all, any time we are playing anything, there is first a sense of surrender to “what is.” Why, because that’s what is! Sometimes I tell them that the music we play IS the only music there is, since one is here in this immediate situation where our music is all you can hear anyway. However, simply saying that is just a pointer. What I really like, is to be able to take the voice in the head’s judgements out of the way, and to simply correct the playing errors at the level of simple facts. I might have a student try to master a difficult technical passage by playing it several times. I suggest that they start by just playing “whatever comes out.” Then, we can simply notice if it was what it needed to be or not. No other story like “I’m not a good player” needs to be imagined. I say that if they tell themselves THAT, they are not really observing the truth, but rather making something up, which is a story. Perhaps they will try the difficult passage 5-6 times, and then, it finally comes out great. That’s when I say, “Now it is time to get some muscle memory of that.” I have them play it correctly a few more times and tell them that now their body, their “total self” will remember it from now on. Then they can go back to letting the music play through them!
So as Eckhart suggested in the October talk on ETTV, called “Creativity,” there needs to be a lot of practice to really become capable to allow the art to flow through us, although the technical perfection is not the complete process alone. But when the skills are there, and become part of the muscle memory, then the music is allowed to play through us.
M: Yes, Eckhart has spoken often of the 10,000 hours of practice required to develop a capacity, a vehicle for creativity. An educator in one of my classes insists that it is 30,000 hours, and I suspect she might be right. But then, some individuals seem to catch on extremely quickly. But suffice it to say that it will take a lot of hours. The same is true in visual art, and we talk about this often. I will have them look at websites of other artists, and I will point out their extraordinary technical proficiency, and yet see that their art has no life, no soul, no presence. This allows us to talk about the content of art as opposed to the creative process.
Coming back to the voice in the head for a moment. I tell my students that the creative flow (I often distinguish between the creative process and the creative flow. The process, I tell them relates to the tools, mediums, and techniques they will learn, whereas the creative flow has to do with the artist’s inner state while creating.) Anyway, one way of looking at the creative flow is that is has three phases. There is Curiosity, Chaos, and Clarity. I say, when you start a work of art there is nothing there, there is only your curiosity about creativity. And then you put a few strokes down and it’s fun, something is beginning to happen. Curiosity goes on like this for awhile and then they hit chaos. That is where they start judging their art as bad, and ugly, etc. What is really going on, I tell them, is that you are entering a level of the creative flow where your mind cannot follow. You mind does not know what is going on, so it rebels and calls it ugly. But the fact is, the creative flow is continuing to move at a level that the mind cannot participate in. And, as your instructor, I am telling you to keep going forward, keep moving in the flow without knowing anything, stay with that, enjoy not knowing where you are or what the outcome of your creation will look like. And then they do that the best they are able, and suddenly the art begins to get clear again. The end is in sight, the student is in the Clarity phase of the creative flow. The student now knows to put finishing touches here and there, and it becomes obvious that this color or line needs to be changed. There is always a great deal of relief when the get to Clarity. I believe that this cycle of Curiosity, Chaos, and Clarity is often a characteristic of the creative flow in the more universal sense.
Chaos. They understand what I mean when I say chaos. But eventually the student can come to understand that chaos is merely a negative way of describing the unknown. It is in the unknown, I tell them, in which the deeper aspects of creativity is occurring. When you are at home in the unknown, then you are in the place of true originality. Much more could be said on this.
P: I am deeply impressed with the way that you help them with these concepts that point to the different stages of bringing art to life. I am hoping I might be allowed to borrow these with my own classes myself!
Another impression I recalled as you were writing this was a personal experience. Maybe this will sum up my portion of our discussion today. I remember a time when I was asked to perform on my flute for a church service. It was one of the last times I can even remember being in a church, and it was over 30 years ago! However, I remember I played a Handel Sonata that day. It was a piece I knew fairly well, and I did not have to “think” to play it, or not much anyway. As I played, I noticed the music coming out of me, as if I was watching myself. Afterwards, a man came up to me to thank me for playing. He told me that he had a medical condition that was taking his life away, probably very soon, but that my music “spoke” to him. I sensed what he meant, and I knew it was something much greater than my technical abilities, or anything about “my” playing, that made him tell me this. I did not attribute this to a story of “God” either, but rather, I had a different feeling, one that said it was Life itself, or maybe we would now call it “Presence” that came through this music that day. This in itself did not destroy any notion I had about religion, at least on that day, but perhaps expanded it much wider than I realized that it would later. At that time I simply saw that life itself is ultimately what we are, and the music that I had played was my “tool” for allowing life to enter into this world on the level of form where we are.
M: That is a beautiful story. I have had similar experiences. Like coming back into the studio and seeing the painting I’ve been working on and thinking, “Wow, where did that come from? I don’t have the ability to do THAT!” Yet there it is, having emerged through me. While painting, when self disappears, that nothingness is sweet Presence. Just quickly, about the Artist Kandinsky–there is a well known story that once he reentered into his studio and a friend had tipped Kandinsky’s painting sideways. When Kandinsky entered the room and saw it, he fell to his knees and wept, and said the painting now tipped sideways, was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. In that moment of seeing, he, for a moment, suddenly saw his creation from a higher level than he was able to perceive it when he was working on it upright.
What a joy!
P: Yes, and it shows how alertness and presence are deeply connected to this art process that we find to be an important part of our life experience. Morris, my friend, I would like to thank you so much for taking your time today to have this conversation “on the sofa,” and hope we will have other opportunities to explore the many wonderful experiences that art, music, teaching and living life in an awakened manner bring about. Thank you for joining me!
M: It has been a wonderful pleasure chatting with you, Paul. I appreciate your initiative to make this happen, and I would be delighted to do it again someday. Thanks!