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.
Next the flame erupts into full expression, flows like water, fire as body – body on fire. Crystallizations, like stones, come through flames but are not of them.
Image four. Matter is infinite in its multiplicity. Cellular and microcosmic or macrocosmic and vast, the edge cuts the image from mass that could extend forever. Mitosis and self-generation.
The evolution of consciousness leads to living beings – the universe senses itself. The fifth image moves toward the animal worlds of reptiles and birds, water and air, living in the heart, the chest, the thorax.
Reaching down into deep water, these two hands are really one hand twice. This is the duality that allows meaning, that makes sense, that speaks, that looks at itself, that severs us from the world and yet requires us to rediscover presence. The universe that splits from itself to know itself. From the repetition, just twice, of the monosyllable “ma,” springs our human joy and suffering, syntax in all forms, language, technology, culture, love and hate, and Dharma. The Dharma to both repair the split and retain its knowledge. One becomes two is one.
The seventh image is the display of that which has come before. It contains the information that we have seen and transforms it all. The stone is now stacked as a nimbus – the impossibly fixed physical sign for a nameless and indescribable spiritual condition. The world as display, a wonderful, mind-bending display yet empty of any solidity. In even the short distance traveled through these seven images, everything is changeable, transforming, evolving, and capable of reversals and tricks.
As a boy, in the field of my grandmother’s farm in Saskatchewan, I would often lie and gaze at the empty sky. What a blue it was. Nothing for the eye and mind to grasp — infinite depth yet flat, spherical and pressing down. The more I looked the more it confounded any sense, the infinite swirling of tiny lights, each moving into the next and over and under and away, each held in colorless space, or was it blue? The deeper and longer I looked the more golden it became until that blue was a pulsating vast infinity of golden light.
The last image dissolves all back into a formless state. The concrete images are gone and what is left is pure potentiality and cessation, after and before. When one is deep inside a cave under the earth where there is no light, no light at all – it seems impossible to find the darkness. Wherever you look is a swirling, heaving field of light and it’s as if you have to imagine the darkness in between.
Brian Wood 6/20/96