In June of 1996, I was asked to write a piece about my recently published folio of eight lithographs, Rolling-Out. The inquirer was curious about the source of my imagery and its sequencing. One stream of my work had been generated, for a number of years, by a very disturbing experience I’d had in New York in 1980. At that time, I was very involved in meditation practice. The attention to consciousness – what it is, how it works, how it feels, its changes and tastes, what alters and transforms it – intuitions about, experiences of, and attempts to be open to the ground of awareness had always been the source of my work. This particular sequence of images explored the way in which an image/thought flashes up into consciousness, flowers, and dies. However, being the ego-structured self that I am, the transparently arising reality is usually extruded and informed by my memory, wishes, lusts, meaning, fear, chemistry, and discursive vectors of various kinds. One could imagine that the evolution of form in the phenomenal world is constrained and birthed by analogous limits…
A Man on Fire and Meditation in the Making of “Rolling-Out,” 1996 (June 20, 1996)
One fall day in 1980, walking in Manhattan, I turned west from Seventh Avenue onto 17th Street. The air was cold and clear – brilliant light, intense shadows, with a cold blue sky pressed low and hard into the empty street. I was alone. Then I wasn’t. An immense speed, frozen in masses of orange flames, a writhing torrent of fire rushed toward me, reached at me – curling gently, black elbows smashed through, clawed hands, knees, feet and fingers grasping, as if torn from separate bodies.
Facing that terrible beauty and horror I stood naked. No separation. No likeness.
After calling for the trucks that put out his fire, I walked down the other side of the street, past this man’s broken body – a black smear under a mound of white foam now surrounded by police and firemen, television cameras and crowds of the curious. We had never spoken, knew nothing of each other’s lives, and yet each had forever altered the existence of the other. The evening news reported that, distraught over lost love, he had soaked himself in kerosene and set his body on fire.
I had recently returned from making a film in Bhutan – my first direct contact with Buddhist Dharma.
An image arises in the mind, reaches full display, then decays – followed by another and another and another. Rolling-Out, a folio of eight lithographic images, is analogous to this process of mind.
When the attention is deeply focused in meditation practice, one can see the birth of a thought, its momentary flash of being, its disappearance – rising from nowhere and returning to nothing. It’s as if the eye of the universe were seeing itself, each image full, radiant, and empty of purpose.
With yet closer attention, one sees the infinity of parts making up each arising thought. Just like every thing in the world, every object in the mind is composite. Even what appears whole is just a part of another whole which is part of another whole and so it goes forever – no independent parts, no independent wholes. Nothing solid or fixed anywhere.
Attachment to the discursive drama of these thoughts, the leading or chasing after their trajectory, solidifies the mental flux into desired meanings, stories, and fantasies. These are then projected back onto the thought stream to make sense of it all, which generate more thoughts, more desire, more craving, and on it goes. My stories and my making sense take on the utmost importance – they become perceived reality.
In the normal mode of day-to-day thought and actions, ego is very attached to this “cement” of meaning, since it serves the necessary purpose of helping us make our way through the world. However, by exclusively maintaining this solid sense of “me”, spontaneous thought and experience and being are constricted into patterns that have their source in limited personal histories of pain and pleasure, wishes and desires, personalities, psychologies, cultural patterns, etc. This entire process is mostly unconscious and the deeper reality rarely even rises to awareness through all the emotional clutter, habit, and mental chatter. Thus we are very attached to, and centered on, ourselves. The world, instead of being seen through our selves, cannot be seen as anything but our selves.
Meditation offers the possible freedom to experience the mind/world directly, without duality, without the constraints of sense, censor, or ego functioning. This does not discredit conventional consciousness in daily life, or in meditation, but the meditative experience slowly softens the fearful craving for a solid, unchanging, and thereby isolated me. The huge gulf between being a man burning and witnessing a man burning is bridged in a flash of experience that does not deny the difference. Perhaps the possibility for true compassion lies in actually experiencing and living the simultaneity of non-duality and ordinary awareness, nirvana/samsara.
The beauty of images (and illusions) is that they seem fully whole, self-sufficient, immanent – full of blood and fire, cold as rain, and as difficult to hold. However, when experienced within contexts, linked in continuity, or viewed as composites, images can offer up new meanings.
Rolling-Out operates on two levels of consciousness simultaneously – that of the non-conceptual witnessing of phenomena, internal and external, and that of the discursive consciousness that generates meaning. The individual pictures stand alone, yet within the context of the group they take on shifting meanings. All are linked in an ongoing transformation – images and structures evolve as consciousness evolves.
The first image of Rolling-Out is generated from a photograph of a burned-out campfire – that moment in a fire’s life when it stops pulling oxygen and matter into itself and is in a quiet state radiating great warmth and light. The image is an end yet also a beginning – like the expanding energy of the just-formed, or the radiation of the almost-stopped.