“ Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain
Looks with side curved head, curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” Walt Whitman
Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk and spiritual master, reminds us that when we enter the monastery, we no longer have to get anywhere.
“If we want to be spiritual, first of all let us live our lives.”
John Yau, an exceptional art thinker and writer penned an essay called The Secular Heretic. It talks about the artist Thomas Nozkowski and his commitment to rejecting the pull of it all. Nozkowski is an extraordinary abstract painter and Yau does a great job describing why.
He says that Nozkowski’s paintings are so interesting because he broke three rules.
1. He moved away from big, grand, monumental, painting size.
2 He chose mundane, student grade-painting materials.
3. He is painting abstract works based on something he has experienced, something he saw, read, or heard.
These three rules give Nozkowski permission to be him-self, permission to paint the things of his life with attention and care. He paints everyday, starting and completing one small painting each day.
From Merton’s perspective Nozkowski decided to first of all to live his life and then make paintings about that.
Nozkowski’s yogic approach to making art reminds me to live and practice simply without the need for fancy poses, a fancy mat, or any conceptual ideas about the yoga that is outside my experience.
Thomas Merton, who was truly dedicated to a mundane path toward enlightenment, says,
“If God is everywhere then there is nowhere to go and nothing to do in order to love...”
Yau states “Nozkowskis decision to always make a specific experience the root of each painting suggests two things:
1. He wasn’t tempted to connect his work to a grand system such as might be found in theories about opticality, the reification of paintings flatness, paintings death, the kabala, alchemy or any other totalizing scheme, arcane or otherwise.
2. He was secular artist concerned with the stuff of this world, seeking reassurance or comfort in a larger structure was never part of his project.”
“We are all gods Son, and we are already what we are seeking.”
For me these words are a relief in a world of heightened anxiety and consumer platforms that are as grand as they can be. The influence of media in our culture can infuse us with panic, anxiety and an urgency that is not really there. It is imagined, inferred and implied but certainly not real.
Rejecting comfort in a larger structure does not mean that Noskowski, or any of us, are not worthy of an experience in a larger structure, whether that structure be the monastery, art itself or a specific yoga style.
But Yau reminds us that seeking a specific experience with prescribed materials for a predetermined outcome will fall short of Art or Yoga. It will fall short in the realm of satisfaction and joy.
According to Merton if man is really acting according to his or her nature he or she experiences the 4 passions in relation to your work. The 4 passions are love, fear, joy and sorrow.
On the enlightened path the work could be yoga, art, God or anything else that you love. The subject of the work can be as individual and varied as we are. The practice offers the opportunity to do work thoughtfully with a contentment that says doing the work is enough. We can contextualize our passions and through our own understanding of the work.
Love of the art (or yoga, God)
Fear of being separated from the art (or yoga, God)
Joy in being the art (or yoga, God)
Sorrow when we forget the art (or yoga, God) is everything.
Merton reminds me, if I come back to my direct experience, without any attachments I see there is an opportunity to love.
“For me, to be a saint means to be myself.”
Yau concludes: “Beneath the intensely worked surfaces of his sophisticated visual hijinks and human comedy, I sense a large reservoir of despair, the recognition that true and deep communication might be entirely futile.
Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, and the illusions of refuge and solace that society continuously offers us, we all harbor a deep- seated suspicion that we will never be able to explain our sincerest feelings to each other because we would never be able to agree on the definitions of words we use. There is no talking cure, but we better keep talking.
Without ever overstating the case, calling attention to himself, or making claims for his project (he was never that kind of artist) Noskowski, makes the comic and tragic inseparable but never the same. This is where his paintings gently bring me to- a place where the ordinary meets the magical, where we see ourselves looking so that we might look again and again.”
Do your work and try making it as true and quiet as it can be. Let yourself be simple but honest. There is a full life that reveals herself when we let go of the notions of what it should be and that we should get somewhere with it.