...so much space in the night...
Zen, and art, and psychoanalysis—all ways of looking at exactly what is, and it’s only by this ardent looking that we can free ourselves from the fix we’ve got ourselves in, of always placing our thoughts between ourselves and the world.
I have recently been on a pilgrimage. I could also describe it as a descent into the underworld.
The photographs are traces of this, they’re what arose and was traced by the camera on a series of afternoons in my apartment.
I set the scene—black backdrop paper, afternoon light reflected off the buildings opposite. A simple dress. Miriam [Miriam Healy]. My instruction to Miriam was: You are dead, you are nowhere. You are empty. And we proceeded from there, not knowing what would happen. And it wasn’t even obvious what we had when we took time out to review the images. This was the first time I had done such a shoot digitally, so review was possible, but in a way I was still shooting blind. My thoughts were entirely suspended, I was all instinct, almost without eyes, or without the connector from eye to mind.
After, there was a long mulling process. It was all rather like a dream, allowing myself to dream it all, accepting what came up, always following instinct. The days I followed ideas about what it could look like, nothing worked out.
Roshi [Roshi Robert Kennedy, S.J.] recently told the story of a monk who went on a pilgrimage in search of Manjushri, the god of limitlessness. He came to a monastery where he was greeted with great kindness by the abbot, and given hot food and a bath and a bed for the night. In the morning he was escorted to the gate by the head monk, who he thanked for the wonderful hospitality and asked, “Who is the master here?” And the head monk turned and swept his arm in a wide arc showing him the ranges upon ranges of great mountains and sky, and said, “This is the master.” And the monk was stunned by the beauty and vastness of it all.
He turned back to the monk to say goodbye, but the monk had disappeared, as had the monastery. He stood alone. He had found himself, not someone else. And all the mountains and sky were his teacher. He was what he could see. We are what we can see. Our teacher is none other than ourselves.
Sitting on our cushions we go on a pilgrimage.
It is easier to imagine ourselves on a pilgrimage when we are in motion. Walking recently in England on a rough path close to a cliff edge, the sea churning 50 feet below, the wind streamed thoughts through me, all thoughts and feelings entering and as quickly blowing away as I carefully put one foot in front of the other, walking in all the vastness of the sky.
It’s no different on the cushion. All thoughts and emotions enter, are witnessed, and pass through. We see ourselves creating our lives with our voice track, and gradually see that we ourselves are creating the world we see and experience. And gradually see that it’s not necessary to create this voice track, this conceptualized and often rigidified version of ourselves, our lives, our experience, it’s extra, we’ve added it, it is not what is. What is is the wind blowing through.
But what the cushion gives us is a safe place to look at this. A grounded place, like the foot one after the other, one before the other, so I could look at the dreams I was having, and helped by the process of making the photographs, look into the dark underworld that is part of all of us.
We so often live on the surface of our lives, all business, especially in this age of data. We start to see ourselves as data, as machines, good for doing things, and lose our selves. Lose our being. We seal off and separate utterly our unconscious, the huge dark well that informs us, where our roots are, just as the tree’s roots are in the earth. At night in dreams we descend to the underworld, but how often do we bring anything back, or if we do, take the quiet morning time to examine it?
New York City
My thanks to Miriam Healy and Michael Holleran for posing of these photographs.