Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Zen and the art of art

Gabie has a hard time concentrating during prayers. To be fair, he’s a typical 8 year old and he has a hard time concentrating in general (with the notable exception of when he’s reading a Percy Jackson book and then he sits spellbound on the couch for so long I have to locate him and check his breathing because the house seems too quiet). But it’s a special kind of torture for Gabie to close his eyes, keep them closed, and DO NOTHING but listen to someone else pray. At the dinner table last night, Gabie dutifully folded his arms and, as I said the blessing, he slouched down in his chair and began slurping the juice out of the cup of fruit he had deliberately arranged at the edge of his plate within neck-stretching distance. After the prayer, I made him demonstrate proper Prayer Behavior for one minute before he could eat. Even worse, I forced him to squirm through a mini-lecture on how prayer is a holy act of talking to God and—using an analogy I hoped he'd appreciate—I suggested if a Greek hero had insulted Athena by slurping his food while talking to her, he’d be in big trouble.

Maybe I was a bit hard on Gabie. I mean who doesn’t find it hard to focus sometimes? Especially when we’re basically praying for the same things over and over with little variation? One prayer, to Gabie, is much like another, but this fruit cup in front of him…this is something entirely new, and syrupy and seriously in need of tasting.

Coming off the tails of a semester in which I had to multitask every moment to fit it all in, I’m finding new joy in focusing on one thing at a time. What a concept! Sometimes it’s hard to set aside distractions and think about only the task at hand (admits She of the iPod Addiction) but when I’m able to do it, I feel far more peaceful. I admire Zen philosophy for its emphasis on mindfulness. Everything we do, no matter how mundane or repetitive, deserves thought and care. As Zen master Dogen said, when you’re washing the rice, wash the rice.

Or maybe, since I don’t wash my rice, if you’re making the bread, make the bread. And maybe it's a joke trying to be totally single-minded with a Gabie by your side offering assistance and advice, but I made whole wheat bread this week for the first time in months and it was a true pleasure. I enjoyed the whole process especially the part where we ground the wheat and got to smell the warm, fine dust that rose from the drawer each time I pulled it open to peek at the little mounds of flour forming under the stone millwheels. Gabie helped me load everything into the mixer and flip the switch to knead it (I’d like to say we went all Zen and kneaded it by hand for several minutes, but sorry, the Bosch just makes it too easy). Gabie checked back every couple of minutes between chapters to ask “Is it dough yet?” And then we shaped five big loaves and Gabie made his own mini loaf, which still sits on the counter, two days later, in its pristine condition, wrapped in plastic, like an offering to the gods of bread and childhood, too beautiful and precious to be consumed.

I think my love-affair with art can at least partly be explained by its ability (its demand, really) to make me focus. A good painting forces my attention. It expands my experience by temporarily limiting my vision. (Jasper Johns’ famous paintings of targets take this point to an extreme) And what is art, anyway, if not a process of narrowing the scope of life in a way that asks us to look very carefully at a privileged moment, or a face, or a pattern? It’s not just painting that does this. Theater frames a couple of hours’ worth of cause and effect on a stage, well-lit, boxed-in and elevated for our consideration. Literature puts it all in a book that must be held close enough to the eyes to block out everything else happening on either side. I can relate to Gabie’s single-mindedness about his books because I grew up in a large, noisy household and I developed early the skill of tuning everything out with a good book. But paintings especially make me focus. And not to put too spiritual a point on it, I think the correlation between the evolution of framed altarpieces and framed canvases was no accident. Art museums are pseudo-sacred spaces. Don’t you think they’re even church-like sometimes? The quiet voices. The meditative staring. Lots of people with their arms folded.

I’m beginning to worry about my students and wonder how many of them are really capable of this kind of focus. I’m having more and more trouble with them playing with cell phones in class. I can swallow the fact that my lectures are not captivating enough to demand their full attention, but really, it’s not even me I want them to pay attention to. It’s Van Gogh and Vermeer and the ancient Greeks who carved the faces of their gods into marble. But some of my students just can’t do it. They can’t go a full hour without sending a text or checking their mail. It’s downright painful for them. How can I teach them about art when they’re only half-listening or half-looking? There’s almost nothing you can learn about art with half your mind. The artists who created the pieces we study put their whole souls into their work; they were notoriously fixated, even to the point of sacrificing their health and, in more than a few cases, their sanity. The least we owe them is a few minutes of our undivided attention. Maybe I need to make my classroom more Zen like. I’m seriously thinking about taking a bowl of rice the first day to wash in front of the classroom just to prove a point.

How does one wash rice anyway?


Allysha said...

I, too, worry about the "cell phone generation." And I am determined to make sure my kids know how to sit and be still for certain things. And I am trying myself not to be led into the traps of the digital era. In fact I have a goal this summer to disconnect from my computer and reconnect with a lot of other things, stillness and nature among them.

We wash our rice. I put it in a wire strainer and run water over it before cooking it. I can see how it could be a very relaxing and zen moment.

It is lovely to have you back.

Anonymous said...


Just a comment, not on topic, please forgive me that.

I stumbled into your blog of bits and pieces a few weeks ago while searching for a specific "glue" to repair a crack in my own artfully arranged thinking. I can't recall the phrase I googled, but there it was, neatly placed in one of your posts, and very nearly mirroring the thought I was attempting to reassemble.

So, I thought to read some more. I read, and read, and read ... and laughed and laughed and cried and laughed 'til I cried more.

THANK YOU! I am thoroughly enjoying the mosaic you're creating here.

Again, thank you!

Tangent Woman said...

I guess I should count my blessings that I teach in an environment where I can still confiscate their cell phones. The kids know that if I see them out - I take them away and they have to have a parent come pick it up from me after school. They HATE that. After the first few times they watch it happen and see that I am serious - I don't have too much problem. Some of them are seriously addicted to texting.
As for me, I'm addicted to my beloved little Nintendo DS - which I of course justify by saying I am playing educational games that stimulate my mind so I don't end up with alzheimers.

SAC said...

I wash my rice because it is brown rice (which is the kind I prefer) -- if you wash fortified white rice, all the fortification washes away.

I'm feeling guilty now because I can't make it through an hour and a half of Calculus lecture without distracting myself in some way. I don't have an ipod, but I do have access to the internet (darn classroom with computers).

But I CAN concentrate when my brother-in-law is explaining stuff to me over the phone. He is great at explaining math stuff, and he listens when I ask questions. When I ask my Calc. professor questions, he sometimes says, "But isn't it obvious that it's this way?" and I stop asking questions and start needing to read my book or blog or daydream a bit to get away from this reality in which questions are evidence of my stupidity.

I can't imagine you're that kind of professor, by the way. But could it be possible that your students are being sucked in by phones because the phones themselves offer a quick-and-easy focus-- and that the focus which can come from/through art requires slightly more patience but offers a significantly greater reward? (I am feeling rather out of my depth here-- your blog has provided the majority of art history I've gotten, outside of the tangential "this is what else was going on" from music history and regular history.) Perhaps the trick is getting them to "even have the desire" to develop the patience necessary to find focus.

_I_ would take an (official) art history class from you in a heartbeat! And I am so very thankful that you're back. You point out ways of looking at the world which I would never, never have thought of and which I am always thankful to have found out about.

The Lazy Organizer said...

I heard a rumor from someone that worked at the MTC that some missionaries are so addicted to their cell phones that they have to go home.

Why not give your students something to do with their hands during your lectures? I think Legos may be the answer here.

Jenna Consolo said...

I just love how you think. I love the way you make ME think, and I completely agree with you about mindfulness, and wonder also how to help create it in my children. There are more and more distractions, set up on purpose, of course, by someone who wants anything for us but mindfulness.