With My Back To the World

Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 60” x 60″, 1997. Courtesy of MoMA.

Agnes Martin, With My Back to the World, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 60” x 60″, 1997. Courtesy of MoMA.

Agnes Martin Exhibition
Tate Modern: Exhibition, June 3 – October 11, 2015

After having discovered that Tate Modern in London is holding a retrospective of the seminal American painter Agnes Martin–the first since her death in 2004–I was compelled to revisit one of the most important books in my inner archaeology: Writings (1992), her collection of letters, journals, and lectures–now unfortunately out of print. If you have $300 and willing to make a worthy investment, you can grab a copy here. For a revealing and intimate portrait of the artist, I highly recommend watching this interview from 1997 available here.

Martin’s writings are highly contemplative and display an active engagement in Eastern philosophies–especially Zen Buddhism and Taoism–and muse on her lifelong themes: sensibility, responsiveness, beauty, truth, inspiration, humility, and perfection.  In her essay “Beauty Is the Mystery of Life,” Martin wrote: “When I think of art, I think of beauty. Beauty is the mystery of life. It is not in the eye, it is in the mind. In our minds there is awareness of perfection.” She devoted her life to living beyond the incessant pull of worldly goals, to the “inspiration [that] is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.”

Agnes Martin in her studio on Ledoux Street, Taos, New Mexico, (1953) (photo by Mildred Tolbert)

Agnes Martin in her studio on Ledoux Street, Taos, New Mexico, 1953 (photo by Mildred Tolbert)

Martin was also renowned for her subtle, evocative canvases–often 6 feet square, Martin favored this size, she said, for its ‘bodily’ address–marked out in subtle pencil grids and pale color washes which suggest tranquility and offer an invitation to the experience of transcendence. (For some fine examples of her work, check out the Guggenheim’ s online collection.) When I first encountered a painting by Martin, I realized that in order to actually “see” it, I needed to prepare myself–to let go of the busyness and turmoil on the surface of the mind and settle into that quiet space between thoughts–the more I let go of, and the quieter I became inside, the more the artwork opened up.  Slowly it revealed its mysterious power, vividly and almost unconsciously, through a direct perception and not through any web of conceptual constructs.

In line with that experience, Martin wrote: “My paintings have neither object nor space nor line nor anything – no forms. They are light, lightness, about merging, about formlessness, breaking down form. You wouldn’t think of form by the ocean. You can go in if you don’t encounter anything. A world without objects, without interruption, making a work without interruption or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of the simple direct going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.” The Agnes Martin retrospective opens at Tate Modern in London, June 3rd and runs to October 2015.



Takashi Shimura as Watanabe in “Ikiru,” (1952, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Takashi Shimura as Watanabe in “Ikiru,” (1952, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Yesterday, as I was walking down Spadina Street here in Toronto to meet someone, something within me started noticing my thoughts. It was strange becoming aware of all these thoughts just a-thinking in me. It was like watching a series of short films–one after another. But suddenly I found myself–on the street, in the snow, surrounded by people and the whole cacophony of China Town with merchants yelling and cars everywhere. I was present to it–an opening to my life as it was happening now.

This body that usually just carries me around came into view, I was embodied. It lasted a few moments, before I was taken back up into the head and back into the swirling films that were so irresistibly engaging. But a moment later, I would remember and return to this body beneath me, here and now, along with the impressions of the street, the sounds, and the people and cars.

It occurred to me that “I” am not often the one who goes out for a walk. The stories that continually run around in my mind take me for a walk. How many days of my life, I wonder, have I been living in these stories without actually living my real life. I’m not interested in labeling the stories as good or bad–it’s part of being human, but I am interested in the part of us that can watch, without judgment on what is actually taking place–moment to moment.

Ring Them Bells

Photography Credit: Gjon Mili, Bell’s, Life Magazine, 1959

Photography Credit: Gjon Mili, Bell’s, Life Magazine, 1959

On December 31 at midnight, the New Year is welcomed in Japanese Buddhist Temples with 108 bell chimes during the Joya no Kane ritual, which means “bell rings on new year eve’s night.” The rings represent 108 elements of bonō, defilements or passions and desires entrapping us in the cycle of suffering and awakening (Samsāra). The 108 bell chimes also symbolize the purification from the 108 delusions and sufferings accumulated in the past year.

A couple of years ago, I came across a Western adaptation of this ritual of celebrating the New Year:

Ingredients: close to midnight, sit in silence for an hour. Then strike a bell 108 times — ideally outside — and with each measured ring remember someone in your life: near and far, dead and alive, friend and foe. Then write on a piece of paper “One thing I want to let go off” and burn it. Then bow and drink a glass of sparkling beverage. Cheers!”

I will find myself spending time with family and friends at the stroke of midnight, but I will try to keep this ritual in mind along with an invitation from the poet, Leonard Cohen that touches on an attitude toward the sacred: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

May all your good intentions and highest wishes come to fruition in 2015.

Newfoundland Meditations

Photograph by Keegan Gibbs, “The Alchemist”

Photograph by Keegan Gibbs, The Alchemist

From on top of a hill where a small white house sits, I can see the beach below. The ocean, like life itself, creeps up the coast and falls back, merging with the deep blue. From an old wooden table covered with oil paint and propped against a window, I watch the lazy summer sun and the tall grass dancing. There are voices from the house next door, but the sound of the wind makes them inaudible. A few people, smudges of red and white, walk across the beach. On the road, cars pass each solemnly and slowly. The waves come and go, like watching my breath as I sit here on this chair and fill this notebook with words. There is nothing to do. It’s strange how difficult this is to accept sometimes. Usually my inclination is to fill these silences, these empty spaces with just about anything–desires to be something or somewhere else, or just chatter. Is this all I am? This usual existence that I call my life, where I am chained to a continual like and dislike of everything is so limiting. It has length, but no width. Is it possible to forsake this view of my life for something that is much larger and far more mysterious—to die to the known and enter the unknown?

Everything is pregnant with summer, the trees, grass, sky, and ocean—the breath, the head, the heart, and the line. Wooden posts stand at attention across the hills and valleys overlooking the white capped waves, the ribbons of blue, and the stones and sand. A dog barks, a lawn mower engine starts up, and then all is quiet again. There is a natural rhythm to life here that is deeply ingrained in the locals. It has soft ebb and a flow that I can only imagine comes from living near the sea. There is a humbling feeling of being a small part of something that is so vast that it doesn’t allow you to become overly concerned with yourself and your preoccupations. This wonderful feeling of wide is a gift that can swallow up any shred of self importance.

John, the middle-aged man who lives next door is sitting calmly and collectedly on the front steps of his house, facing the ocean. Deciding to take a break from raking the grass, he pets his dog Chip. He looks like he belongs there completely, like a silent pharaoh. Looking at him betrays my own restlessness. It’s a marvel how someone or something so unobtrusive, can teach you something about yourself.

I feel something is working on me here. There is a softening of tensions that appears if I am open enough to see it and taste it. It’s like the landscape is a special mirror, and I can see myself reflected in it. What is behind my restlessness, behind my tensions? Ah! There is something else here, whole and mysterious. A vertical dimension, one might say.

We are all moving through forces that we don’t understand like little boats being rocked to and fro on that big blue expanse of ocean that I see through my window that is buzzing of flies. And like those flies, I find myself caught so often inside a prison of a small house, when all I have to do is find the door to a much larger world that is waiting patiently outside. It all comes down to what I truly and sincerely respect. What do I serve? Either my limited energy is continually taken by my likes and dislikes, flowing into my thoughts and emotions, or it can serve the one who is able to see and stand in front of the mystery. This precious energy could serve a different master that my body truly wishes to obey.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

“Settle down in your room at a moment when you have nothing else to do. Say “I am now with myself,” and just sit with yourself. After an amazingly short time you will most likely feel bored. This teaches us one very useful thing. It gives us insight into the fact that if after ten minutes of being alone with ourselves we feel like that, it is no wonder that others should feel equally bored! Why is this so? It is so because we have so little to offer to our own selves as food for thought, for emotion and for life. If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction… We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from the outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, (Darton, Lomgman & Todd Ltd., 1970) p. 68

The Art of Meditation

The Art of MeditationI have been spending a lot of time with Sir Richard Temple’s beautiful book The Art of Meditation, which I received last week in the mail. I highly recommended it. Sir Richard Temple lives in London, England, and owns The Temple Gallery, one of the world’s great religious icon galleries. Recently, he has introduced his magnificent collection of Buddha statues into the space. He also decided to gather his collection of photographs that were originally commissioned for an exhibition catalog, and publish The Art of Meditation instead, along with When You Hear a Dog Bark, an intimate personal account of Buddhist meditation in Thailand.

In the poignant introduction to the book, Temple writes:

There is in all of us, even if deeply buried, a longing for eternal truth….Art, at least traditional sacred art, with its supreme technical mastery and craftsmanship, with the grandeur of its emotional language, its inner stillness and its suggestion of profound meaning can be a signpost for this search. Sacred art of the great ancient traditions speaks to what is finest in the human spirit and can turn us in the direction of order, compassion and wisdom.

The photographs in the book are stunning, and his personal journal about meditation is a joy to read. It is sincere, and often humorous and insightful.

Here is a remarkable passage from Temple’s journal that resonated with my own search:

Meditating is seeing into oneself, and it is not the role of the seer to intervene; he does not descend to the level where what is seen takes place. The seer is a higher level in oneself, the lower remains as it is. It is simply there to be seen objectively, as one would stand in front of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Delights. One may be intrigued, horrified, fascinated, amused and so on, but one is an onlooker to these events and not a participant.

A great spiritual truth can be understood from this if the principle of impartial, objective seeing is tightly grasped. The seer is an appearance within oneself of an intelligence that does not belong to the ordinary world but to a higher one.

The practice is called “the art of arts and the science of sciences.” With sufficient endeavor it can be brought into one’s everyday life. I have met people, admittedly very few, who carry out their ordinary affairs in the world while maintaining this interior regards upon themselves.

For more information about the book or to view the collection online, you can visit The Temple Gallery here.

The Temple Gallery

The Temple Gallery


When Angels are Born: A Review

When Angels Are BornWhen Angels Are Born
by Ron Starbuck
Saint Julian Press

I awake most mornings at 5 a.m., shuffle around the house in half sleep, make coffee, and then I sit quietly to watch the arrival of another new day through the window. On most of these mornings, just as the sun reaches up to the sky, I turn on my laptop computer and my attention is immediately taken by the white hot flash of an LCD screen.

This morning was different. After a few moments sitting quietly looking out the window at the light changing outside over the silhouetted black buildings as the coffee machine gurgled away in the kitchen, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down Ron Starbuck’s latest volume of poetry, When Angels Are Born. I don’t know why I did that instead of turning on my computer, but I am grateful. It is as though a part of me needed a different kind of nourishment. Something softer and more contemplative, a kind of wish to make a connection to something that speaks to a deeper part of myself–a “secret self that we all have,” as the writer Katherine Mansfield once said.

It surprises me now to realize how little an effort is required to make one’s morning seem holy and significant. We just need to be attentive and to listen much like Ron Starbuck says in the introduction: “to open ourselves to the mystery of life.” Reading his poetry is to accept a gentle invitation from a friend to go walking in the fields of the spirit. You enter his words like a song, deeper and deeper still into “the mystery of life” and all of its “infinite possibilities,” much like the lightning bugs he describes in the poem “Youth & Rebellion:”

who guide us home
and guide us still.

When Angels Are Born is an honest and heartfelt invocation, a calling out to the sacred that is so desperately needed today “in a world that undervalues such an intimacy of spirit.” It is also a spiritual journey where we are continually aroused from our sleep and brought to think and to feel our common human situation. We are encouraged gently to “pay attention” and to “welcome the embrace | of heaven found in a single moment, between breathing in and out.” Ron Starbuck’s psalms, or sacred songs and prose easily guides us onto the path of many contemplative traditions and mystics like Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton. And in the light of those traditions, we are asked to travel further than the known, to “empty out our small separate selves and to recognize the truth of who we really are–”to become a sacrament of seeing.”

There are no clear cut answers offered to the great metaphysical questions but rather a deepening of those questions. He speaks directly into the heart of each of us, as though drawing from an ancient source, giving us voice to our deepest and most powerful intuitions and longings. The question of what does it really mean to be alive is echoed throughout the book and his penetrating verse assures us that the world is filled with the Absolute and that we need only to listen and discover for ourselves that we are not separate–that we are all part of something much larger. Even difficult spiritual concepts like compassion, emptiness, and rebirth are distilled down to their essence and made accessible in a language easily understood by the heart. In the poem “Death,” for example, Ron Starbuck says:

Look at someone you love today
For one minute,
As if you saw them
for the first time.

When Angels Are Born is a gift. It is a wonderful book that can be read again and again. It serves to remind us to ask what is being given to us in each moment. Ron Starbuck’s poetry encourages us to try to see the world through fresh eyes, and to open ourselves up to gratitude for this life, or as he so eloquently puts it: “to give birth to our own angels in the world every day.”

Spiritual Diplomacy

Here is an illuminating interview with James George, former high commissioner to India and former ambassador to Iran. The Dalai Lama calls him “my old friend.” Chogyam Trungpa referred to him as “a wise and benevolent man, an ideal statesman.”

He has been a gentle teacher and a friend who has inspired many to engage in a spiritual practice in the midst of life–one that can bridge the external world with the inner world.

Uneasy Street

Ernst Haas, “Route 66,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969

Ernst Haas, Route 66, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969

“Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.” So taught the Gautama Buddha, some 2500 years ago, with his hands delicately poised in front of his heart. This morning, I am sitting in front of a computer, watching the incessant demand of a blinking cursor within a blank Word document.

I notice that I am particularly tense this morning, hunched over, my head supported in a sleepy left hand, my jaw clenched and that I am even holding my breath unnecessarily at moments. I watch my thoughts negotiating with the yes and the no, the before and the after. I realize that I am singing the old songs again, and find myself walking up Uneasy Street.

I accept the fact I’m on Uneasy Street. Inevitably, I will do a little window shopping – find myself in a few stores. But for now, I try to stay away from this seductive long strip of stores with their myriad distractions by turning my attention inward. I will sacrifice all my under-the-breath commentary and judgment about what I am experiencing and to mobilize my attention in order to experience a direct sensation of myself sitting here. Specifically, I try to watch what is taking place without interfering with anything. The more I practice this, the more intriguing it becomes: “So that’s how I am right now?” I notice that all these forces of thought and emotions that pull me here and there are pretty damn interesting. It’s like watching an Easter parade–a marching band of habitual attitudes and tensions.  I give myself wholeheartedly to this activity of watchfulness by accepting everything without reservations. It’s how it is. I receive what I am.

It takes time, but if I simply wait and listen, an inner space can appear. A subtle relaxation begins to inhabit this body. I realize that this subtle relaxation is a gift, and that by letting go of my preoccupations and concerns of the day, it announces itself naturally. By the giving-over of myself, I am brought under its influence. I think it’s always there, this mysterious gift, it’s just that I am often too busy to hear it. Even though it’s really noisy just before the intersection of the here and now, I realize how necessary Uneasy Street street is.  It is an important aspect of the spiritual life because it serves as a reminder of the Other.

Photograph: Ernst Haas, “Route 66,” Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969.

India Photo Journal

If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most deeply pondered over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions to some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant – I should point to India.

And if I were to ask myself from what literature we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw the corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in face more truly human a life, again I should point to India.

–Max Muller (19th century orientalist)

My wife, Alex, and I have just returned from a month-long journey through India. It was our second time there. In 2005, we visited northern India. The trip began with an 18 hour flight to Delhi, where we spent a couple of days settling in and attending an extravagant Hindu wedding. Next, we took a 20 hour train to the Hindu holy city of Varanasi. Since it was nearby, we also took a day trip to Sarnath, where The Buddha preached his first sermon. Next, we rented a car and driver and headed to Bodh-Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment. After a few days there, mostly hanging around the peaceful ambiance of The Mahabodhi Temple, we left for Delhi on New Years Eve embarking on a train to Delhi. Later that day, after arriving in Delhi we caught a plain south east to Chennai from where we visited a crocodile sanctuary, and the amazing rock cut temples of Mamallapuram. Next, we flew south west to the laid back port town of Kochi in Kerala. A few days later, we began to make our way north, flying to the sun drunk beaches of Goa for a few days. Next, we took a plane to Aurangabad to spend the last week of our trip exploring the magnificent paintings and caves at Ajanta, and also the breath-taking stone cut caves at Ellora. Finally, we flew back to Delhi and spent the last few remaining days of our journey wandering around on foot and taking a remarkable early morning bicycle ride through the old city before we flew back home.

Here are some photo highlights from the trip: