How to Meditate, Interview – April 16, 2010
HTM: Would you consider your drawing or sketching a form of meditation?
Van: Gesture drawing could be said to be the beginning of my drawing as meditation. One was expected to ignore the contours and points, but rather follow the energy of the figure to generate the lines, and quickly resolve it too. This led me to a love of gesture as a finished product as some of my gestures really satisfied me. I think the bulk of my first manicgrams (as I called them) appeared about 1981-1982. Then the manicgrams resurfaced as oil pastels in the late 90’s in Los Angeles. Almost all of the manicgrams were done in the buff— that is, I was naked.
HTM: What prompted you to do them naked?
Van: Pretense to primal intent, you could say. I had also composed a "prayer" to Pan early on which I would utter. The nakedness stuck but the pretense evaporated—so did the "prayer."
HTM: So this was definitely a form of meditation as it brought you deeper clarity and a sense of original nature or primal nature?
Van: Yes. Evidence to explore: Everything not part of the subject or process is usually successfully tuned out; a different level of consciousness: figure drawing (naked body) does not cause sexual excitement.
HTM: I'm trying to follow this. The reason you strip down is to eliminate distraction in some way? Does it make you more vulnerable and so more in touch with things in general?
Van: I don't strip much anymore, because I don't have the same intent to waken Pan... Pan was my way of dealing with fear, but the nakedness was mostly to eliminate the feeling of human devices to shield from nature... insecurity... drawing that way was therefore more than meditation, it was an opening up of numinous space, awe of origins.
HTM: Tell me what numinous space means. Also, you mentioned figure drawing and nudity. Were you drawing yourself?
Van: "Numinous Space" from Erich Neumann's Origins of Human Consciousness. I was referring to space experienced without self-consciousness, the ego, reflection, and therefore wanting to come as close as possible to an animal response to stimuli, yet set out to find a new human awe of the world.
To refer back to the rest of the last question about figure drawing and nudity: I've not stripped down in a long time. Nor did I do it for all my work. I only did it when I was doing my manicgrams. I worked fast and hard then too. Often hard enough my hands were bruised because I would beat on the picture to get a high sheen from the oil pastel without using a spray fixative.
HTM: Would you say that you were successful in this opening up?
Van: Not really. I set my sites way too high. But I do think I was onto something...that perhaps our aesthetic, scientific and spiritual attitudes seem to be converging; that this could be some kind of evolutionary start of a new consciousness akin to the shamanic aspiration to heal in every sense/domain—a kind of "triattitude" I used to call it.
HTM: So what is going on now? And where do you find the most elevated experiences in terms of awareness and something of bliss? Is it still with drawing?
Van: Oooo, I like this question. Yes, and okay - so fixating at one point on Pan makes sense here. Animal slash god! But I don't presume myself to be anything godlike. I did at one time believe I was having "visions."—visions, but in the sense of the "man who tasted shapes." I felt like I was seeing the unseen. And so when I attempted to capture a subject swiftly in a "manicgram" I really was taken by a kind of fear that this unseen stuff would overwhelm me too, so it's as if I had to go quickly as if I was in "their" domain, you know. I really did feel I was too close sometimes to losing my mind altogether.
So, anyway, I'm too conscious now of this Jamesian connection between mysticism and neurosis... I don't see ghosts and I don't hear voices... I don't channel, and I'm not the reincarnation of any ancient personage. I am however curious why some would succumb to such beliefs.
HTM: I started this by asking is drawing is your form of meditation, presuming that this is where you come closest to experiencing your own divinity. Do you equate the primal experience with this divinity? In your reference to a space experienced without self-consciousness or the ego, and wanting to come close to a animal's response to stimuli, do you consider this "awe of the world" or what one might call a recovered wonder to be consistent with source or an acausal witness?
Van: "acausal witness" I googled this phrase... and found this quote-- "Michael Garfield is intent on demonstrating that everything is equally art, science, and spiritual practice" at this Ken Wilbur link. So, here I must mention that I distrust the pretense toward "new age" spirituality—such that I see charlatans all around us trying to sell the consumer the eastern paths to enlightenment and virtue.
I'm too skeptical and perhaps maybe it's my artist's ego that wants to maintain my own version of this "path" I don't know... I see absolutism at the end of all paths frankly- political, spiritual, aesthetic, scientific - everybody wants to be the hero that discovers, claims patent on the "answer" to all our questions. It's all just ego, no matter how many ethereal concepts we proclaim.
So, as a visually inclined human, I refuse by way of my "visions" to succumbing to an overriding union of humans for any coagulation of endeavor. I refuse to be the stalk of the sporangium.
HTM: I love the passion... love it—in your last response. I want to get into this more deeply. This is getting closer to something of a core nature in my opinion.
Van: Solitude—lots of solitude.
HTM: Setting aside your rant for the moment, I want to focus on what is clearly a passionate and deeply felt personal freedom and creativity that you refuse to compromise. There is tremendous integrity in this, and I have a few questions connected to this and I want to ask you be brief in response. Do you believe that all of us are equipped with the same core creative impulse to exercise our freedom to be ourselves? I am not talking about the quality or capacity to express this freedom, only whether or not the core of it exists.
HTM: Excellent. Would you not also agree that because this creative impulse is something that we all have in common that it is universal? Not the expression or manifestation, but the core sense of freedom that may or may not feel courageous or skilled enough to express it.
HTM: Would you agree also that this same core creative impulse is so universal that it is alive and present in ALL beings, not just human beings? Let's assume that we agree here for a moment so that I get on to a further question and that is as to whether you believe that what we are referring to as universal is in actuality at the core one single creative impulse.
Van: Hmmm... I'm having difficulty with the word "alive" and "impulse" now. I rather think of this core more as a vestibule to a vast universal space. But let's say for the sake of this interview I say yes to it being "alive" and its singularity. I guess it's any absolute that is anathema to me. I draw by not focusing on any one point but by being open to relationships in my field of view.
HTM: You say you are resistant to absolutes, however would you agree that there is only one whole—that we can speak of everything that exists as one whole—one absolute and single completeness or wholeness that we can call "one"?
Van: Well I can't presume to know what this whole feels like for a slime-mold or an elephant, but for me, I can't even swim to the bottom of the ocean much less see the perimeter of the "Universe."— but, if by "whole" you are meaning "Universe" I might agree to a "wholeness" or "one" but with the qualification that I am far too conscious of my visual limitation, and even further distrustful of the conceptual environment that I would find it impossible to pronounce formula that unifies all our understanding of physical laws, much less any co-variable of consciousness.
HTM: I believe your resistance to wholeness as an absolute is connected to a need to hold onto your individualism in the extreme. What I am trying desperately to tap into is your heart and that part of you that is absolutely connected to everything else.
Van: I think my obsession with visual thinking is in keeping with Buddhist philosophy—
"Words and their discrimination bind one to the dreary round of rebirths into the world... meaning stands alone... [and] is attained by much learning, and much learning is attained by becoming conversant with meaning and not with words..."
—A Buddhist Bible. ed. Dwight Goddard, p312.
HTM: What I get from this quote is that meaning is a thing of the heart and not the mind, just like understanding. Minds can never touch. Hearts can.
Van: Not where I was going with that, but hmm... actually, I think I was getting at the point (of agreement) where there must be some universal creative impulse, but that, as an artist (or whatever it is I am), I never feel satisfied with describing it with words— that through drawing I feel more successful at getting close to it. The process vs. the product, you know. So, drawing as meditation is quite simply itself my best answer to "what is this core universal impulse?”
I "feel" I know what it is, but I also feel like I'm looking away from it when I try to describe it with words. Yet, the visual product (or any of the arts) like words are evidence of our search, they all together allude to a deeper "meaning" perhaps than could be had without each of the others. Surely, though, I would think a "well rounded" education would allow like minds to meet. My own mind and heart, it could also be said though, are in check with each other.
HTM: This is good and usable stuff. Thank you so much. I think we are back on track. I appreciate the focus. Let me ask you this-- Why do you suppose two Zen masters have nothing to say to each other?
Van: Hmmm—because they've already shaken the hands that didn't appear to be clapping?
HTM: I'm serious.
Van: Oops, sorry. I thought you were injecting some humor. Okay, wait... Honestly, I think it would be a redundant conversation for them and they know this already. They'd be like practicing the minutely different ways to utter the words like actors rehearsing their script, you know. Or, like they know the way out of the woods already, and prefer to stay a while in silence before they amble out.
HTM: So there is no point. Looking into one another's eyes or laughing. Everything is clear. No discussion is necessary. It's all good. This is a meeting of hearts. As soon as you introduce language and the mind it will go on forever as we can never fully agree on the expression of terms because they are names for things that have no name. Okay, now I am going to quote someone:
"When you leave solitude you enter the marketplace"
—Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
Van: Are we still talking about Zen masters? Or the general public..., or just you and me specifically (I don't think of myself as a Zen master). I like this quote. Leaving that spiritual/intellectual refuge inside, we become prey to our desire to consume.
HTM: Well, the marketplace yes... is a place of consumption but I think his point is that the endless (and I mean endless) negotiations begin. We enter trade... trade of ideas... and we will inevitably feel shorthanded. I would not call the common inner refuge intellectual. Perhaps this is where we (in our marketplace) impose a different meaning on the word "intellectual". I want to jump on the opportunity here and ask if you believe this inner refuge to be the same place in all cases. I am trying to corner you with another absolute but my reason is beneficent.
I believe the refuge is absent of both time and space and is common to all. It is nothingness, emptiness and acausal (without cause). It is eternal. Out of this eternal pure empty space that I believe us all to in essence actually BE, nature is expressed in its many forms and creates time through dimension and its cycles. So to refer back to the terms I joined and coined of "acausal witness", I speak of us all ultimately being (independent of projected biological nature) a witness, making no choices but simply experiencing.
Van: Ah, yes...market place of ideas... Perhaps I should have said "reason" and not intellect. But it's the same problem there. As to being cornered... My heart says it wants a comfort zone of sorts—a solitude I've always craved. Seems a paradox though (to my reasoning self) to state that it's also a shapeless, timeless place we all share and that we are fixed as witnesses to the same wonder. Really bends my mind there.
When I am drawing I don’t think that I am consciously alone. Nor that I am conversing with anyone. Rather both those concepts are contrary to the event. I'm either in between these states of consciousness, or without them altogether... or as you have termed it I am not "I" but an "acausal witness" to the event.
HTM: I appreciate the willingness to at least look at this bit. I want you to entertain something if you will. I sense a contradiction that when looked at deeply might reveal much. You have stated that you reject absolutes. I understand where that comes from. I can appreciate it. In fact, what I'd like to ask you to do is be brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself if you in actuality know anything—anything.
It seems to me that the rejection of absolutes is the same as understanding quite clearly that there is no real empirical knowledge AT ALL. Take some time to look deeply at this. If this is the case, then yes... you cannot be anything more than awareness. My reasoning is that motive becomes just another idea. It is our egos that have us as we are walking to the bathroom out of necessity say "I decided to go to the bathroom". Shit just happens and we mistakenly take credit for it.
Van: Hah, yes, I like that! I've avoided explaining the origins of my reluctance to adhere to any absolute because it involved bringing up lengthy digressions about politics and religion which we wanted to shy away from in my responses. Just to put it real briefly, "I scared myself." I caught myself stating absolutist malarkey about all large movements including environmentalism leading to fascism and suddenly decided it was time to distance myself from proclaiming I had any special knowledge anymore. So, yes, I know nothing, nada, nichts.
HTM: That's beautiful. So the witness thing fits does it not? I want to point out something, and you tell me if I am on target or not. Your reaction based response to your proclaiming though it threw you into the polar opposite camp, actually kept you on the same axis of ego. The refusal to admit any absolute is an absolutist approach. Another monk story: One Zen monk is pontificating and then apologizes. He looks to the other monk for understanding and the monk simply sneezes to show that his words were just an expulsion of noise anyway.
Van: Yes, indeed, and my recoil was an absolutist reproach as well. I love this sneeze story!
HTM: Thanks. Hey, I think we are almost done with the interview. I have at least one more question but we will see how it goes. Given our reconciliation of absolutist opposites, and your acceptance of the inherent non-knowing and what might be called a meditative state as refuge that you mentioned, can you describe the process in understandable terms of how drawing enables you to recover this refuge-like space within yourself?
Van: Yes, certainly. Firstly, (to draw from life, especially) I consciously let go of the natural focus of the eye, opening up the attention to the whole visual field. The reason being i draw from the relationships of shapes and contours rather than points. This resisting drawing from points allows both a quicker understanding of the figure as well as protects me from committing too greatly to any one error or feature. This, then, is also the meditative doorway if you will. Resisting focus frees me of self-consciousness, and not just doubt but, holding to any ideas at all about anything... I am freed of thought.
HTM: Okay, so now I have a few more. One is regarding the word "error"— just wondering if you meant "area"... The second question is if you could describe (rather than your intent) your emotional state... joyous, manic, and ideally not just adjectives but the emotional process as you draw and meditation deepens as you draw. In addition, is there a sense of culmination or completion, or does it just diffuse?
Van: Ooo, great questions. Let's see. No, to the first; I did mean "error." On the subject of "emotional states" I guess I'd have to say it is a "calm". In real-time our emotions are in flux, right, and kind of connected to the outside stimuli. When I'm drawing, or at least in the middle of this process, I feel detached—yet, I'm on a high plateau of calm. I'm not sure that answers well enough that part of your question... but, it also occurs to me that I do feel a slow sense of closure, or maybe a better phrase for it, would be landing.
The product, however, does not always give me satisfaction; but the process does; always - even when "I" intrude upon the event feeling frustrated by a particular difficulty, I can get back to the plateau pretty easily. And oddly, when the matter of a "likeness" in a portrait is at hand and becoming successful, this plateau is that much more unstable - I can feel the ego trying to jump onto the stage for moment and I have to ward him off. Regardless, I don't always feel a sense of culmination, either. Especially with portraits, and maybe for the above reason - that the ego tries to "take credit" for the product.
For the stuff that just comes out of my head there's never any question about culmination because at the outset, there's little intention to represent and therefore it's all no more meaningful than as you mentioned using the restroom. Sorry for the lack of brevity. Thought I'd send an image to illustrate the combination of portrait and manicgram. I've created virtually nothing of my own in Washington. I did work as a designer for Christine Alexander for a very brief period; but beyond that, all my visual thought has remained just that. I did continue to fill a common book journal and began to theorize passionately about visual thinking. Here are some examples of drawings and artwork.
HTM: These are all great. I think I have what I need. Thank you for interviewing.
Van: Thank you.