|AHYMSIN NEWSLETTER, ISSUE - Jan 2017|
Meditation and Art
by Jim Fraser
Meditation and Art: A Subtle Approach
I have followed the Himalayan Tradition method of meditation since I learned it from Swami Veda when he visited Scotland in 2009. As my practice has continued it has become more and more interesting to watch how meditation opens subtle understandings. I would like to share an insight into Western art which I would think is due to the way in which meditation opens the mind. It was in Italy and where better to have an insight into art?
It was the summer when my wife and I cycled in Italy from Pisa to Florence along the byways of Tuscany. It was fine apart from the rain.
In Florence my wife guided me as usual from cathedral to church to monastery to palace to art gallery. I had my personal Grand Tour guide. Italy is probably the country in Europe most like India with so many sacred places, architecture, art and monuments. In Europe however, the art is often regarded aesthetically and the spiritual is less regarded. This is a result of accepting scientific and rationalist thought too readily. So this aspect can be considered in a contemporary Grand Tour. And as I wandered round the many artistic masterpieces in the city I became aware that the meditative outlook I had learned provided yet another aspect to consider.
It was in the Baptistery in the centre of Florence that this process of thought began. The Baptistery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist, is the oldest religious building in the Piazza del Duomo and sits close to the cathedral. It dates from the 11th century, replacing an earlier baptistery from the 6th century. The building has eight walls surmounted by a dome. There are three sets of doors dating from various times of the Renaissance which are notable for their sculptural decoration. But what grabbed my imagination was inside: the 13th century Byzantine mosaic decoration around the dome celebrating sacred history culminating in the Last Judgement; the circle of angels above that; ornamental mosaics above that; and above that again the light opening at the apex of the dome which is God’s light. What I saw was a meditation space, the shape and the sense of elevation is the same as in the meditator’s head and consciousness, going inwards and upwards. It occurred to me that what I was looking at is a Byzantine sahasrara. To my mind this wonderfully decorated dome celebrated the elevation of the human spirit through meditation. Recognising such parallels is the gist of Swami Veda’s paper, ‘The Unifying Streams in Religion’, to recognise a stream of commonality between religions.(1) A further confirmation of this way of thinking is in the guide to the Baptistery. Referring to the earlier Baptistery we read in the guide: ‘that primitive baptistery must have been similar to the present one in its form, too: an octagon, symbolising the octava dies or ‘eighth day’ – the time of the Risen Christ, beyond our earthly time measured in seven-day cycles.’ In India this is understood as turiya and it is a consideration in the philosophy underlying samadhi. So two spiritual cultures share the same thinking.
But then I discovered that the same simple spiritual directness one can see in Byzantine work can be glimpsed too in 20th century Modern Art. It was at the Palazzo Strozzi, a fine Florentine palace built in the 15th century with lines so clear and simple it looks contemporary. At the palazzo there was an exhibition of works from the American collector Peggy Guggenheim which, to use a modern term, is ‘trending’ meantime. The exhibition’s title was ‘From Kandinsky to Pollock: the art of the Guggenheim collections’. Kandinsky was part of a ‘non-objective’ movement in art and wrote a book ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’. The leader of the ‘non-objective’ movement was the Russian, Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), who announced a new way of thinking about art and its role in elevating consciousness. He called it Suprematism.
Malevich established the philosophy of Suprematism in the early 20th century during the period of the Russian revolution. Yes, a spiritual revolution right in the centre of a revolution inspired by dialectical materialism. Malevich spurned all representation in art and the empiricism of perspective which was so important in the development of Renaissance Art. It was a revolution in sensibility. It went beyond the other great artistic movements of that time: Cubism which derives from the figurative and surrealism which is inspired by dreams and notions of the unconscious. Malevich totally removed art from the world and its objects to the realm of the transcendental.
Malevich recounts reactions to his work: ‘When, in the year 1913, in my desperate attempt to free art from the ballast of objectivity, I took refuge in the square form and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics and, along with them, the public sighed. The square seemed incomprehensible and dangerous to the critics and the public, and this, of course, was to be expected. The ascent to the heights of non-objective art is arduous and painful but it is nevertheless rewarding. The familiar recedes ever further and further into the background. The contours of the objective world fade more and more and so it goes, step by step, until finally the world "everything we loved and by which we have lived" becomes lost to sight. No more "likenesses of reality," no idealistic images nothing but a desert! But this desert is filled with the spirit of non-objective sensation which pervades everything.’(2)
What Malevich achieved was a non-representational design which directs the sensibility beyond conceptual thinking. It opens the space to where the mind is underneath any thought. This is similar to the intention of the dharanas taught in the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra where concentration on an object, mental or physical, is a starting point for the elevation of that concentration beyond itself, lifted by Devi to a way of looking beyond what is first experienced. In the introduction to the commentary of Swami Lakshman Joo to the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra by Bettina Bäumer we read ‘Many experiences and practices aim at emptying the mind of its oscillating thoughts and making it supportless, in this way gaining access to a state of pure consciousness.’(3) Later in the same introduction we read ‘This text is unique in that everything, from the most ordinary daily experience to the most sublime contemplation, can be used for attaining god consciousness. It offers thus a practical application of the Trika maxim that ‘everything is contained in everything…’ Thus it is not impossible to imagine a room with the 112 dharanas arranged around, just like the early exhibitions of Malevich, and seeking the same end, the elevation of consciousness. Why not? Who is to say what or where or how we come to know? But there is a difficulty with this claim, the partial experience gained from art is not sustainable in the same way as yoga meditation because meditation is designed to make the wider consciousness totally sustainable.
So at the Palazzo Strozzi my previous knowledge of non-objective art and of meditation converged and modern art issued an invitation to see the same spiritual opening and elevation as I had discovered in the older Byzantine art in the Baptistery.
The exhibition was arranged so that the development of American Art could be seen in the context of its European influences. The development consisted of denying the figurative and indeed all reference to objects as in Russian Non-objective Art. It was a passage from Cubist influences which contained reference to objects and Surrealism with its dreams and fancies of the unconscious to complete abstraction from the world. Very simply this is the programme of yoga: to deliberately abstract oneself from the personal and the sensuous. By the late 1950’s artistic movements in America such as Color Field and Post Painterly Abstraction turned away from representing the world so that all that is left is the paint on the surface and the experience of it. As there is no object the mind finds freedom beyond reference to the world. The exhibition culminated with the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder.
Not only are they abstract but they don’t possess any single point in space thus losing the last concrete reference. The artist invites the viewer to share within one’s own sensibility the sense of mutual space.
What we see in Modern Art in its highest expression is an invitation to look inwards. Yet when the high art of the 12th century Baptistery is compared with the high art of our times then a shortcoming is evident. The Baptistery was built to dignify and celebrate a high spiritual consciousness, Modern Art offers just a confused glimpse of that and suggests that has come after great effort.
It was an interesting trip and Florence provided so much to think of. Let the guide to the Piazza del Duomo sum it up: ‘Therefore, dear visitor, I ask you to gaze at these marvels with a spirit open to the religious meaning of life, which pertains to all – believers and non-believers, Catholics and those of other denominations – and requires the openness towards the transcendental inscribed in every heart.’
1) Swami Veda Bharati – Unifying streams of religion: an offering on the occasion of the World Peace Summit of leaders in religion and spirituality, at the United Nations, 2000. This paper is required reading in TTP Level 2.
2) An account of Suprematism is found at http://www.moodbook.com/history/modernism/malevich-suprematism.html
3) Vijnana Bhairava The Practice of Centering Awareness / commentary by Swami Lakshman Joo. 2nd ed. Indica Books, 2007.