I carry on a rich correspondence with an older cousin, Chaz Walters, who’s an accomplished painter as well as a teacher of Tai Chi. Here are some thoughts about art, discovery, and the creative process which may be of general interest. They were triggered by an article he had written that he enclosed with his last letter to me.
I wrote him the following:
I was very intrigued by the article you wrote about how you paint. You described what I’ve always assumed must be one of the (wonderful) ways in which an artist works: you prepare your tools, sit down, and something then flows through you and out it comes. In contrast, for example, to when I’ve looked at the lovely seascape you gave us some years ago, and just assumed you went down to the shore of the ocean with the intention of painting the ocean, and then worked very hard, detail by detail, until you had something you liked.
I’m jealous! Occasionally over the year I used to sit down with “art” materials in front of me, ranging from just a paper and pencil to some paints, but nothing worthwhile ever came of it. I can’t draw at all realistically to begin with, my cartoonish drawings are not really interesting or humorous, and I know I’m just fiddling around, not responding to inspiration, and not satisfied with my scribblings. Now I have the possibility of using computer painting programs, where it’s easy to undo my mistakes, and I have a number of tools available,… But still, inspiration doesn’t come. 🙁
And yet, in the course of my lifelong major research project, trying to figure out how in the world the mind of Charley Tart works, there are parallels. Yes, like my fantasy about you painting a seascape, sometimes I’m presented with a situation, I examine details carefully and deliberately think about possibilities, something comes up, I write a rough draft of it, then do some editing polishes, and it’s pretty good. It also fits with one of my self-concepts, that I am a sane, logical, grounded, practical person, and I solve problems well.
But when I think about some of my best writing, the ideas just came to me and I hurried to get them on paper before they got overlaid with my thinking about them. I can call that my “subconscious,” but that doesn’t really explain much. It’s a fancy way of saying the idea just popped up in my head and I don’t remember figuring it out.
My favorite meditation technique now, learned from my friend Shinzen Young, is to observe moments of change in my experience. It’s to sit calmly, usually eyes closed, trying to notice whatever experiences come up without getting carried away by them or trying to control them, but particularly to note when there is any kind of change. Maybe bigger, smaller, leftward, rightward, steady, rippling, gone, getting brighter, etc. Right now, for instance, I just noticed a vibration in my back and that was dropped almost instantly and replaced by a pain in my hip, etc., etc. I don’t know whether I’m “good” at this meditation technique or not, except I can certainly say I notice a lot more change, most of it from second to second, than when I first started this technique a couple of years ago. Shinzen’s basic recipe for meditation is to observe whatever happens with concentration (you stay focused on it), clarity (as a result of concentration you see it more clearly than you normally would) and equanimity (you don’t try to push it away if you don’t like it, or hold onto it if you do like it, or otherwise control it).
Shinzen is excellent in breaking down meditation into clearly specified steps that you can learn how to do. So it was a great surprise when, talking to him about it one day, he described what I was doing by its classical Buddhist name, namely the “observation of Impermanence!” Wow! Impermanence? That was one of those big, fancy Buddhist words about something very mystical that I’d never had any understanding of whatsoever, but gosh, you talk about observing how my flow of experience is changing, I can learn to do that…
Anyway, when I do this kind of meditation I frequently notice that ideas, concepts, scenarios, both in the form of words and in the form of visual images, appear, last a few moments, disappear, or morph into something else, and so forth and so on. If I were to think of it in modern computer terms, it’s like there are dozens if not hundreds of relatively freely running programs down there in my subconscious whose job it is to generate ideas, some of which manage to make it up to consciousness. So I, the alleged author, I’m actually mainly a collection agent, noticing and taking some of those that come up and polishing them.
Sometimes the ideas are really fully formed. The most dramatic example was back in the 1970s. We were living in Davis then, and I had driven to the San Francisco for my first or second Rolfing (Structural Integration) appointment. I found Rolfing quite painful and didn’t like it at all, but I believed it was good for you, and I liked the pictures of people who stood straight instead of crookedly, so I was putting up with it. But then the funniest thing happened.
As I was driving back from San Francisco to Davis after that Rolfing, a series of ideas began flooding into my head, I started writing them down immediately when I got home, and within a few days I had mimeographed a couple of hundred copies of a major paper to take with me to a conference on consciousness that was being held in Council Grove, Kansas, in a couple of days. With only slight revisions, the paper was accepted for publication in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Science. It was my proposal for the creation of state specific sciences. (States of consciousness and state-specific sciences. Science, 1972, 176, 1203-1210. (https://s3.amazonaws.com/cttart/articles/april2013articles/States+of+Consciousness+and+State+Specific+Sciences.pdf)
Was I the “author,” or just the “collector?” I could claim that just about all the elements of my paper are things I had thought about in various ways before over the years, but somehow they all bubbled up in the course of that less than two hour drive organized into a coherent, connected form.
So maybe I do practice my “art” rather like you, something just emerges, but my medium is words, rather than images…
Although I haven’t quite given up on the visual forms yet. The last few years I have been having an awful lot of fun making complex diagrams with PowerPoint to illustrate various psychological and spiritual points. I’ll print out a few to go with this letter, without attempting to explain them, just to share.