How Can I Help? From Rye to Raphael and how a generous donation changed the face of a collection.

Tao Te Ching

That which shrinks

Must first expand

That which is weakened

Must first be strong.

That which is abolished

Must first cherished.

Before receiving there must be giving. 

This is called the perception of the nature of things.

Soft and weak overcome hard and strong.

 

William and Henry Walters, the art they acquired, and the donation of their collection to the city are Baltimore treasures. 200 artworks from the Walters Museum and the story of Charm City’s important family are on view in “From Rye to Raphael”. The exhibition illustrates the evolution of the family, the collection, and it’s complicated context.

The beloved yoga teacher, TKV Desikachar, tells us that: as yoga teachers our primary task is to serve the seeker. We cultivate the yearning to help others and work tirelessly crafting offerings to meet individual needs. He reminds us that teaching is not about me, not about making me a popular instructor, not about this style or that studio; teaching yoga is designing and modifying the practice to serve the student.

 The Walters Museum, now admission free, a feature that increased attendance by 40%, is a palazzo style building in the heart of Mount Vernon. The building was erected by Henry Walters and was bequeathed along with the artwork to our city, a gracious gift.

 But what does Desikachar's statement mean to anyone who desires to help? How do we know what is actually required? Ram Dass, in his classic book, How Can I Help, speaks of service as an endless series of questions. The questions are actually the map.

 

I took the elevator to the 4th floor and walked into a hall filled with paintings, furniture, sculpture and objects gathered by William Walters for the purpose of enjoyment, for his home. William and his son Henry were interested in and collected Maryland artists. To my left is a bust of Henry Walters by Hans Schuler. The Schuler School along with names like Maryland Institute of Art and Rinehart School of Sculpture were supported by this turn of the century family and are today, premiere institutions of art education. 

Ram Dass says that in helping, we meet our own limitations; we can see how our intolerance for difficulty can lead us to avoid suffering, and in the end leave us helpless. In our helping profession we might experience a feeling likened to an open heart. Reaction can cause us to close down when we feel such a vulnerable state. Feelings of overwhelm, helplessness, and burnout can sabotage our ability to help. Ram Dass says awareness of our reaction is the first step to a sustained ability to lend a hand.

Then I see the whiskey. A bottle and two glasses sit in a vitrine. The glasses are fine crystal and I realized the magnitude of wealth required to purchase this much art. The fortune, which begins with the production of Rye and increases with profits resulting from investments in railroad built a ton of money for the Walters family.

I couldn’t help thinking back to Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Her historical novel tells a story of clear cutting in America. The industry provided immense wealth for a few determined families. This wealth was multiplied with the arrival of the railroad and the expanded opportunity rapid transportation would provide. In early America much of the labor for endeavors like railroad and timber was garnered from slaves, indentured servants, prisoners and those who were victims of extreme poverty.

Does this mean we always have to help? Ram Dass asks: Do we always have to give to the person asking for money? Must we always invite the person who is obviously late to have our space in line? He suggests we are conditioned to rationalize and formalize our helping. Conditioned to give in a church setting or to specific non-profits that we have researched and approve of. We are trained to withhold from someone who might be spending our spare change on alcohol. Awareness of our conditional approach can help us to see the limits of our rational mind and our giving obstacles. So while giving may not always be the answer, we can develop a capacity to feel empowered and energized to give in our personal and professional life

 “Awareness of conditionality toward true service is not resistance to overcome but a pathway to deeper understanding.” Ram Dass, How can I Help?

 We can access energy. The three methods.

1. Merging – the ability to identify a quality you admire in another. You can find increased energy when you bring these qualities into your body. If you can perceive it, you can find a felt sense of what it is like to own it. If I embrace someone’s happiness, I feel happy.

2. Boundaries - the ability to recognize when another embodies qualities you do not want to live. Put a boundary around those qualities and simply say no. I can perceive your anger but if I do not want to get caught up in the cycle of anger. I recognize the feeling as yours and not necessarily mine.

3. Compassion - the ability to recognize that whoever stands before you has experienced true success and joy in their life. Compassion is also the ability to recognize that this very same person has endured great suffering and loss. From this experience blooms the flower of deep understanding.

 As I walk around the first corner, I meet another bust, his back to the door. He sits on a wall directly behind the Schuler portrait of Henry Walters. I look at the title, Bust of Dr. Dio Lewis. The subject was an abolitionist. The work, made by Edmonia Lewis, the first African American artist to achieve international fame, is a beautiful form. Next, I see Sylvia and Eddie Brown added the Bust of Dr. Dio Lewis to the Walters collection.

Can we experience Boundlessness? Make a list of who you are. Brainstorm for a full minute, even if you are repeating yourself. I am a yoga teacher, I am an artist, I am a wife, I am a daughter, I am a friend, I am an enemy, I am a spiritual person, I am a business person, I am a person of nature, I am a city dweller, I am a loving person, I am a frightened person. Don’t stop… you will find that at the end of a minute there is still more that you are. You will find that even if you write all day long you could not capture everything that you are. This is boundlessness.

 The Browns must have met the discomfort of inequality when they first looked at the Walters collection. It is remarkable that their response to the discomfort was to lend a helping hand. They reached into their pockets and gave generously. They gave to rectify a vision that was only half true. Standing back to back: Henry Walters and Dio Lewis. One facing the door, greeting visitors, the other like a shadow; present but only visible if one looks. Both works made by accomplished artists: one white, one black. Both sculptures are included in the show due to generosity and the desire to help.

In the same section of the exhibition I noticed the porcelain from Sevres, France: a toothbrush and a sponge holder, delicately built with fine glaze, the toilet seat was not on display. I thought about the toothpaste that would be gross in the holder and how servants would be necessary to keep the porcelain clean. I couldn’t imagine Henry Walters cleaning out such delicate china.

Can we be with Suffering? There is much suffering in the yoga room, physical, mental and emotional pain. Often, as teachers we do a lot to avoid the experience of suffering in our classroom. We might employ a fast sequence, or an easy sequence; we might blast loud music or insist on quiet. The plan is relative and may be a reflection of our professional tactics to avoid suffering.

 Ram Dass suggests that to be with suffering is to be able to help. Our tactics can be addressed; they can be brought into the light so we can increase our capacity to be with difficulty. I know this may seem uncomfortable but Patanjali, author or the Yoga Sutras, tells us there is a way out of suffering, and the path eradicates it’s return.

 “With suffering, our capacity to be still with intense sensation equals our capacity to give. We do not have to help; we are help itself.” Ram Dass, How can I help?

It is challenging to imagine the details of daily life in the 19th century. What and who were required to support the lifestyle of the Walters family? At the same time, the collection is magnificent and Henry Walters, unlike John Pierpont Morgan or other turn of the century collectors, always intended his artwork to be a gift donated for the benefit of the public.

The French painting room included Delacroix and Ingres. I was struck that these masterpieces are right here in Baltimore. I feel proud to know that many pieces in this collection are included in art history lectures. They are considered significant examples of their genre.

But many of the paintings in the French room are also stereotypical. The role of blacks as slaves, the portrayal of Muslims as dangerously exotic, and women as objects, are ubiquitous. These paintings, selected by father and son, increase our sense of otherness. They re-enforce prejudicial beliefs. In this room there are no minorities making paintings of minorities and as a result, there is no lived experience in the works.

How do we hold these two truths? How do we embrace the painting, the pursuit, and the execution of art in the 1800’s while recognizing the homonymous of this collection?  Eddie and Sylvia Brown, instead of rejecting the collection, offered their money as a helping hand. In 2002, a challenge grant, consisting of $500,000 matched by the museum built a 1 million dollar fund dedicated toward adding African American art to the Walters permanent collection.

The gesture blew me away.

Do we have the ability to listen? If our mind is everywhere it is impossible to be where we are. If we are trying to listen to another but are worrying about the future or the past we cannot be present. This internal drama is a real drain and a hindrance in our effectiveness to help. Richard Freeman says that yoga always begins with listening. That listening allows space for the present to unfold. Siddhartha, in Herman Hess’s novel, famously said that the river taught him to listen with a still heart, with a waiting open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions.

 Nobody is perfect and I don’t want to project that expectation on William or Henry Walters. When I was a teenager and entered this museum for the first time, these very same works sparked my interest in art. I remember trying to paint like Ingres. The craft, the beauty, and the creativity cannot be undervalued. These artworks are a very generous gift, perhaps priceless. What I am wondering is, what does it mean to give? What does one have to do to be a real help in the world?

What might make us feel trapped in our roles as helpers? Expectations, personal agendas, attachment to the outcome are all things cast us into the prison of helper. The idea of know-how versus how can I help, may also put a lot of pressure on the giver.  Ram Dass implies, as we continue our training, that more certificates can make us prescriptive in our inquiry around teaching. We can begin to see each other in categories: good teacher, bad teacher, students who work effectively, students who don’t. These judgments can result in labeling ourselves and isolating ourselves in the role of helper, perhaps even fostering an environment where we cannot ask for help.

 

 

The collection includes a beautiful Turner painting, a few famous impressionist works (Henry Walters was not very fond of the genre) including a Sisley, Monet and some Pissaros.  There is a room set up like the Walters home gallery with an absolutely perfect Fortuny (my favorite piece in the show). The collection includes, Madonna of the Candelabra, one of the most sought after Reuben’s in the world and an exquisite Faberge egg. There is a Tiffany brooch with more sapphires than stars in the sky.

I see how early America provided opportunity for amassing great wealth, such immense wealth that one could collect the most desired art in the world. But I wonder, how do we embrace this work and these gifts when we know that the wealth was garnered on the back of slaves, indentured servants, and workers sentenced to a life of poverty until death?

Eddie and Sylvia Brown found a way.

Is Social Action Helpful? Many times as yoga teachers we come face to face with the idea of social action. Should we be vegetarian, should we be sponsored by corporations, should we teach with content relevant to big problems facing our culture like global warming, politics, and conservation? How much time can we dedicate to making these changes? We may find ourselves in a place where we need to change minds: do we use tactics like fear, anger, anxiety, or dread? Is this helpful?  

 “ There is a way to oppose without opposing.” Ram Dass, How can I Help?

 Eddie and Sylvia Brown reached out with the challenge grant. They opposed without opposing by adding the art that Henry and William Walters missed. The additional works create diversity in the collection. My favorite challenge grant work is titled River Scene. Painted by Robert Seldon Duncanson, it’s subject matter includes African Americans boating and relaxing on the banks of the Ohio River.

Will I Burnout? The seeds of burnout are often visible in how we approach our helping deed.  When we identify our desires: to be important, liked, needed, responsible, worthy, we can begin to see how we might manipulate the helping deed.

By choosing to serve the kinds of students who fulfill our needs and by denying those who don’t we multiply the habits of aversion and attachment leading inevitably to our own suffering.

Awareness and equanimity are the method to happiness. Ram Dass says we can dispassionately identify our personal needs and take the risk of releasing our doership who requires result.

 Name three ways you approach the helping deed conditionally?

The Brown’s deed creates an environment that does not erase the past. It does not reject the work of white artists, but gives a very peaceful voice to the unheard. It is present with their suffering and helps simply by being there. In this case the unheard voice is that of African American artists at the turn of the century. For me, the additional works also give voice to those who washed the Walters' toothbrush holders, and poured their coffee into the tiny porcelain cups. For me, these works offered an opportunity to reflect on how to help, even in the face of suffering. The works of Robert Seldon Duncanson, Edmonia Lewis, and others allowed me to ponder the generosity of William and Henry Walters, the Walters Museum, and that of Eddie and Sylvia Brown.

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