Our minds wander, nearly without control, preventing us from achieving a more calm and
contemplative existence. Sometimes we are lucky, particularly at an older age when sensorial demands diminish, and we do acquire a sense of serenity. The beauty of the world is etched deeply into our unconscious self, there to express our most fundamental quests for understanding. To me it speaks of the universality of spirituality — not the usual feelings of religion — but the innate quietness of imperfection and the survival value of wonder and admiration. For discussion, I turn to Eastern philosophies that not only describe the might of nature — as with Mount Fuji in Japan — but also provide the beauty that codes the messages of survival and reproductive.
What’s remarkable to me is that we, in the West at least, reject serenity for a stubborn work ethic that allows us to accumulate conveniences and superior toys. Serenity is lost in the constant buzz of everyday life. This, in spite of the apparent reality that serenity is a valuable state of being that appears to have a genetic base and an evolutionary history.
The Eastern world has learned that a Buddhist attitude of open mind and “know nothing” is a spiritual reach for understanding without the Western emphasis on materialism. In this dual world of Eastern philosophy and Western dynamism the world seems to be constructing links between forms of behavior that serve both our needs for materialistic innovation and an inner serenity. I am not talking about a religious movement, but an ultimate union between human consciousness, neurophysiology, self- knowledge, and behavior.
The Zen Master, Shunryu Suzuki may have the credit for introducing Zen Buddhism to America in 1958 when he moved to California, thus bridging Eastern and Western thought. His 1970 publication, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, is still printed and is one of the best introductions to the mastery of Buddhist principles.
Suzuki tells us that the book is about:
How to practice Zen as a workable discipline and religion, about posture and breathing, about the basic attitudes and understanding that make Zen practice possible, about non- duality, emptiness and enlightenment. It is about reaching serenity.
For me, one of the most inspiring and true Buddhist stories is actually a book by Western author, Eugen Herrigel, titled, Zen in the Art of Archery (Vintage Books, 1953). Herrigel was a German philosopher who traveled to Japan to practice the art of archery with a master Zen archer.
It took Herrigel six years of training under the watchful (or not) eye of his Zen Master before he understood that his task was not to hit a target with his bow and arrow, but to open his Zen Mind to the unconscious reach for understanding (enlightenment). If I could recommend just one book on the subject of the Zen Mind it would be this one. Here are a couple of experiences of Herrigel.
Bow and arrow are only a pretext for something that could happen without them, only the way to a goal, not the goal itself, only helps for the last decisive leap. His Master told him when Herrigel became discouraged. What stands in your way is that you have too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.
After nearly six years of trying to reach Buddha Mind, a day came when Herrigel pulled back the string of the bow and “the arrow flew.” He did not release the arrow; it just flew.
At last Herrigel concluded:
Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and so ridiculously simple …
His Master broke in at this point, saying: The bowstring has cut right through you.”
Well, Herrigel’s life was changed and he finally obtained Buddha Mind. That mind can be found anywhere, in your work, your studies, your relations, or as is true for thousands, in the climb of the holy mountain, Mount Fuji, the metaphor for our Concept Art.
MEDITATION MAY ENLARGE YOUR BRAIN
For thousands of years individuals have found that meditation calms the storms of the brain and makes it possible to reach new levels of self-understanding. More recently investigators have discovered that various regions of the brain become enlarged as a result of meditation. Presumably, the benefits of meditation can be traced to its effects on specific areas of the brain.
In a remarkable learning program from Great Courses (www.thegreatcourses.com) Ronald D. Siegel, a neural biologist from the Harvard Medical School, describes the widespread brain changes that are associated with Buddhist monks who spend a lifetime of meditative dedication to the search for personal “mindfulness.”
In controlled studies Dr. Siegel and his colleagues have found that the neural activity of the right prefrontal cortex is correlated with worried brain activity, but the left prefrontal cortical activity correlates with happiness, engagement, and contentment. Meditative practice enhances the neural activity of the left prefrontal cortex. It also reduces the stressful brain activity in regions of the brain related to worrisome behaviors. In the teaching course Siegel gives us the important generalization.
… mindfulness practice (traditional meditative activity)
trains us to bring deep awareness to the present moment – to become more fully conscious of our unfolding sensory and mental experience as it rises. This mindful awareness, as research clearly shows, can profoundly change our relationship to all our experience.
The imagination of the public in the United States has been profoundly excited by the findings that the brain and behavior are changed for the better by Buddhist meditation. The journal, Scientific American, devotes an entire issue to The Neuroscience of Meditation (November, 2014), showing us that not only are more people involving themselves in meditative practices, but that the scientific links between neurophysiology, behavior, and meditation are at the interface of a major scientific revolution. The aesthetic nature of the visual arts offers yet another path to the understanding of
the mysteries of our inner nature.
Serenity may be difficult to have and hold, but it is always there, striving for release. Artistic creations have a habit of getting us to our inner goals, just like Herrigel did with his arrow. Like Buddhist practices, it can also be obtained through art that touches the most primitive aspects of our brain.
Art is manifold and shows us many ways to personal truth. In my view, it is by revealing the deep instincts of the brain, the evolved concepts, or the unconscious human archetypes, as the analyst Carl Young opined, through which our motivations in our “collective unconscious” are unleashed to extend our views of the universe and lead us to a rebirth of perspective.
Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin, March 6, 2015.
Happy Birthday, Trevor.