The Crazy Wisdom of R. Mutt

In the first of this series of posts, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, I spoke of Picasso’s leap of vision and imagination in 1942, when he sculpted a bull’s head by swapping the usual positions of a bicycle seat and handlebars. Nowadays we call such creations “found object sculptures,” but Picasso and other artists of his time called them, “readymades,” a name coined by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968).

Marcel Duchamp 1952 (Photo by Eliot Elisofon//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Though Picasso gained more notoriety, Duchamp was the more revolutionary artist, and shaped the course of 20th century art more profoundly. “By challenging the very notion of what is art, his first ‘readymades’ sent shock waves across the art world that can still be felt today…Duchamp is generally considered to be the father of Conceptual Art.” (1)

Duchamp, who was even better at mathematics in school than art, rapidly lost interest in art that appealed to the eyes only. “Instead, Duchamp wanted to use art to serve the mind.” (2)   Continue reading

Reflections on Crazy Wisdom

So far in this 21st century, much of our conventional wisdom has failed us. Crazy times demand a matching wisdom, and these are crazy times. That made it all the more strange that I couldn’t seem to write a followup piece to my last post, Crazy Wisdom is No Bull, which I thought would be the start of a series.

I’ve come to believe it’s because Picasso and the others I’d planned to feature were exemplars in their fields, people we think of as “special,” a breed apart from the rest of us. This is the opposite of the real point I want to make. The modern concept of “genius” was born in the 18th century. Of far more use to us now is the original meaning of this Latin word:

Genius of a family. Roman, 1st c. Photo by Luis Garcia, 2009. CC-by-sa-3.0

“In ancient Rome, the genius (plural genii) was the guiding spirit…of a person, family, or place. The noun is related to the Latin verb, genui, genitus, ‘to bring into being, create, produce’, as well as to the Greek…word for birth.” [1]

The genius of a man, or Juno of a woman, was similar to our modern idea of a guardian angel – a protective spirit as well as a creative guide to our individual destiny  and life’s meaning [2].

From this perspective the difference between you and me and the great creative spirits of history is not that they have a genius and we don’t. It is more a matter of degree – “The Force is strong in that one.”

Since none of us really believe that some white-hatted genius is going to ride into town and save us from ourselves, it is more important than ever for as many as possible to find their genius or juno within and begin to listen and cultivate its wisdom. Continue reading

Crazy Wisdom is No Bull!

Bull’s Head, 1942, by Pablo Picasso

“Crazy Wisdom” is an attribution given to certain “unconventional” holy men in eastern traditions, but it applies equally well to some of our western saints. Saint Francis preached to birds and wolves, while Aquinas, after a lifetime of scholarship, had a vision at the end of his life that caused him to declare that all of his writings “were so much straw.”

“Crazy Wisdom” is not some rarified, exalted state of mind, accessible only to the gifted few. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan Bon Buddhist master with whom I have been privileged to study, says that when a person is able to cut through conditioning and begin to connect to their Source, their Inner Wisdom, one typical reaction is flexibility and freedom from our own “knee-jerk” reactions, as well as from cultural conventions that have lost their meaning or usefulness. No one said it better than Emily Dickinson:

Much Madness is divinest sense (620)

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail – 
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous
And handled with a Chain –

I know of no simpler and better illustration of how this works than Picasso’s “Bull’s Head,” a found object sculpture he created in 1942. He was looking for “ready made” objects in a junkyard, and saw a bicycle seat lying near a pair of disconnected handlebars. In that instant, the Source of creativity within him saw a pattern no previous artist had.

Why Picasso but none of the bicyclists or sculptors before him? Tenzin Wangyal would say that he was present, fully aware, with a mind empty of other concerns. He wasn’t focused on what he was going to have for lunch or any of the other myriad concerns that occupy most of our waking hours.

Again, this vision of new connections is not reserved for famous artists, but is available to anyone who can find a way to clear their vision and mind and tune into the moment. Nothing, nothing, nothing may be more important at this time, when “the starkest Madness” rules our land.

To again quote Buckminster Fuller, in the previous post: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 

An added benefit is that this kind of thing drives literalists nuts. Beancounters and most politicians can’t deal with this sort of ambiguity. “There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” sang Bob Dylan 50+ years ago, and it may be even more true now.

So go out and have some fun and be subversive – find some connections you’ve never noticed before!

You Will Get Through This

I spotted this wonderful painted stone in the bushes near the entrance of our local library, on an early morning dog walk this week. How many smiles did this artist generate? How many people’s days were brightened?

The message is simple but intriguing. Get through what? This day? This period of crisis in the life of our nation? This life? Samsara? Whatever other personal burdens each one of us carries?

Such an attitude is a choice, and most of us have to practice long and hard to cultivate such a view, for negativity is easy, especially in times of rapid change like these.

Maybe the question this stone really asks is how do we want to live? The joyful colors of both the paint and the surrounding plants give us a hint of the most skillful answer.

Notes from 2017 – Time to save Big Bird again!

46-bb-nest

Last week, the New York Times reported on administration plans to cut popular domestic programs, including funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The move would save $500 million a year, about 0.016% of the federal budget.

Said Heritage Foundation economist and presidential advisor, Stephen Moore, “I think it’s an important endeavor to try to get rid of things that are unnecessary.” 

Here are some of the things Mr. Moore considers unnecessary:

Sesame Street
Downton Abbey
Ken Burns “Civil War”
Ken Burns “Jazz”
Sherlock Holmes (several versions)
Poirot
Cadfael
The Midsomer Murders
Ken Burns “Baseball”
Shakespeare plays (many)
Victoria
The PBS Newshour
Nova
Masterpiece Theater
The Antiques Roadshow

These are just a few of my favorite programs, past and present. Add yours to the list

Politicos periodically try to defund PBS. Remember the rumor that one of the Teletubbies was gay?  But I think the real reason is apparent in this dialog from The Power of Myth series, one of the most popular television programs of all time. The conversations between mythologist, Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer’s, which first aired in 1988, are as relevant as ever today:

Joseph Campbell on "The Power of Myth" series

Joseph Campbell on “The Power of Myth” series

BILL MOYERS: Would the hero with a thousand faces help us to answer that question, about how to change the system so that we are not serving it?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: I don’t think it would help you to change the system, but it would help you to live in the system as a human being.

BILL MOYERS: By doing what?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, like Luke Skywalker, not going over, but resisting its impersonal claims.

BILL MOYERS: But I can hear someone out there in the audience saying, “Well, that’s all well and good for the imagination of a George Lucas or for the scholarship of a Joseph Campbell, but that isn’t what happens in my life.”

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: You bet it does. If the person doesn’t listen to the demands of his own spiritual and heart life, and insists on a certain program, you’re going to have a schizophrenic crack-up. The person has put himself off-center; he has aligned himself with a programmatic life, and it’s not the one the body’s interested in at all. And the world’s full of people who have stopped listening to themselves. In my own life, I’ve had many opportunities to commit myself to a system and to go with it, and to obey its requirements. My life has been that of a maverick; I would not submit.

BILL MOYERS: You really believe that the creative spirit ranges on its own out there, beyond the boundaries?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, I do.

By now it should be obvious – this year’s crop of would-be overlords, like all of their kind, want “a world…full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.” It’s up to ALL of us to deny them the pleasure!

We know the drill by now…when this budget item comes up, call and write elected representatives. Make #SaveBigBird go viral on twitter. It worked last time an administration tried to evict Big Bird, and it will work again!

Ken Burns, Downton Abbey, Sesame Street, and Joseph Campbell cut across party lines. They invite all of us to listen deeply to ourselves. They remind us not to let others drown out the still small voice of our souls.

Of Kids and Legos

Studies in the psychology of happiness list the factors that contribute to wellbeing. Not surprisingly, good health is most important, followed closely by a satisfying social network. Having money for necessities and simple comforts is important, though the curve flattens out once we have “enough.”

Statistically, having children is a wash; those with kids and those without have the same chances of feeling satisfied in life. Two parents in China experienced the downside of little ones, when their four year old son, unable to read a “Do Not Touch,” sign, destroyed a $15,000 lego critter that had taken three days and 10,000 legos to create.  Oops!!!

The creator, who identifies himself as Zhao, said he feels “frustrated and depressed,” though he understands the act was not intentional. I am reminded of Tibetan sand mandalas, especially as China is warming up to Buddhist practice again. The sand mandalas are ritually destroyed after use to demonstrate the impermanence of all created things.

Still, I certainly sympathize with Zhao. I managed to screw up or set back painstaking projects at work from time to time, even without a four year old to help. The end result was that I became very careful…

Here’s hoping Zhao gets back in his groove!

A kinder, gentler, Jurassic World

psittacosaurus, at the Prehistoric Gardens, Port Orford, Oregon

psittacosaurus, at the Prehistoric Gardens, Port Orford, Oregon

Dinosaurs continue to fascinate. My first ambition in life, after a trip to the New York Museum of Natural History, was to become a paleontologist. Eventually, my life goals changed, and the T-Rex envy faded.

calvin-hobbes-dinosaur-005

Yet decades before Jurassic Park was a gleam in some screenwriter’s eye, Ernie Nelson, of Eugene, Oregon, did not outgrow his fascination with dinosaurs. He made them his life’s work in a most unusual way.

In 1953, Nelson gathered his family and left Eugene, where he worked as a CPA and owned a Mill supply company, to relocate to a valley near Port Orford, where rainfall averaged seven feet per year – he needed a rain forest.

In 1955, he opened the Prehistoric Gardens, and over 30 years, built 23 full size and anatomically correct dinosaurs. This unique roadside attraction is still in the family. Ernie’s granddaughter welcomed Mary and me in August, after we’d driven down from Bandon to see the dinos.

Not what you expect to see when you round the bend on the coast highway, but then, to paraphrase Monty Python, no one EVER expects a Tyrannosaurus!

Not what you expect to see when you round the bend on the coast highway, but then, to paraphrase Monty Python, no one EVER expects a Tyrannosaurus!

Nelson’s process was painstaking. His research was constant and thorough, and included a  trip back east to visit the Smithsonian. Each dinosaur began with a steel frame, which was then covered with a metal lath. A layer of concrete followed, and then another layer to define the visual features.  The Brachiosaurus, 86′ long snd 46′ high, took four years to complete and was his pride and joy.

Ernie working on the peterandon

Ernie working on the peterandon

The Prehistoric Garden’s website says the 23 sculptures were painted according to available scientific research. We normally don’t think of dinosaurs as colorful, though plenty of lizards, chameleons, and snakes in our world are.

I’m willing to trust Ernie on his color choices, but what I liked best was the aspect where I think imagination overrode research. Some of these critters are just so darn cute in, a wide-eyed sort of way.  I don’t want make Ernie turn over in his grave by calling his critters “cute,” but there’s just no other word for this triceratops, which has the same expression as one of my dogs!

triceratops small_edited-1

Some of us can remember the days of wacky roadside attractions on Route 66 or Hwy. 99 – giant oranges, strange animals, and gas stations designed to look like flying saucers.  There were animal parks, fairytale towns, and north pole villages in the days when Ernie Nelson moved his family to southern Oregon to shape his dream in concrete and steel.

The ichthyosaurus is suffering from the drought this year just like we are.

The ichthyosaurus is suffering from the drought this year just like we are.

Nowadays the most frequent sights, as we blow past towns on the interstate, are fast food joints and the same old big-box stores. Santa’s Village has long been shuttered, and the kids have video games and DVD’s to mitigate the boring view out the windows.

Like the dinosaurs, the Prehistoric Gardens speaks of a different era, one in which peace had come, America was unrivaled, and more people than ever before had jobs, cars, money, cheap gas, kids, health care, and paid vacations.

All those attributes can ebb and flow, but there is one precious thing we can always borrow from Ernie Nelson – the example of what an individual can do when he rolls up his sleeves, opens his mind and heart, and lets his creativity flow.

Jung’s Tower: simplicity and the inner life

Jung's Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland, by Andrew Taylor, 2009.  CC BY-SA-2.0

Jung’s Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland by Andrew Taylor, 2009. CC BY-SA-2.0

Recent news of technological incursions into consciousness itself (virtual reality and altered memories); almost daily revelations about NSA spying; suggestions that social media “isolates people from reality;” it’s enough to make you want to unplug all the gadgets – at least for a while!

Renowned psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961) did just that, for months at a time, in a tower-house complex he started building in 1923 and continued to work on for the rest of his life.  He often spent months each year living as simply as possible, without electricity or running water.  It’s easy to think he lived in a simpler time and couldn’t have imagined modern complexity, but consider these words he wrote in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, published in 1961, the year he died:

“We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness.  We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise.  We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us.
………………………
…new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for.  They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole.  Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.”

The tower, phase 1, 1923.  Creative Commons

The tower, phase 1, 1923. Creative Commons

Ten years before starting the tower, Jung had a painful break with Freud that precipitated a period of disorientation and a huge uprush of the kind of unconscious contents he had witnessed in schizophrenic patients.  Feeling that his experience was purposeful, he chose to submit to the unconscious with writing, art, and the effort to understand.  Out of this phase of turmoil and uncertainty, his unique psychological insights were born.  Paper and ink, he said, did not seem “real” enough to represent his discoveries, so in 1922 he purchased land on Lake Zurich for a “representation in stone” of his “innermost thoughts.”

Phase II, 1927.  Creative Commons

Phase II, 1927. Creative Commons

Jung wrote at length of the parallel developments of his inner life and the tower, over more than three decades, saying things like:

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself”

“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.”

“I pump the water from the well.  I chop the wood and cook the food.  These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960.  Library of Congress

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960. Library of Congress

While drawing inspiration from Jung, an obvious question becomes, how do I connect with this kind of depth in the midst of my own too-hectic life?  The good news is, we don’t need a tower to live in for months at a time.  The bad news is we need to unplug every day and tune into activities that nourish the soul; this is often hard arrange.  It takes focus, intention, and experimentation to find those things that center us and we are drawn to.  Any number possibilities come to mind:

  • “Spend an hour a day in a quiet room by yourself reading old stories that you find nourishing.”  That’s what Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked this question during the “Power of Myth” interviews.
  • Meditation, of almost any kind.  This my own core practice.  Zen teacher, Cheri Huber said, “If you start by watching your breath for as little as five minutes a day, it can change your life.”
  • Sports that allow one to get in “the zone,” especially walking, running, or bicycling.
  • Keeping a dream notebook.
  • Writing, though I suspect most bloggers will have the same difficulty I have in putting words at the service of psyche – how do I turn off the writing sophistication I’ve worked so hard to gain?  Can I ever truly use words in a “purposeless” manner, allowing them to go where the wish, without thinking, “Gee, this would make a good blog post?” For any chance of success, I need a definite strategy, like writing fast with a rollerball pen in cheap notebooks.
  • Visual arts or crafts.  Training or skill is not required for this kind of work, and in fact, can get in the way.  Those with artistic training may find it useful to paint or draw with the non-dominant hand.  Jung had no formal art training, but his private journal, The Red Book, only recently published, gives an idea of what may emerge if one is determined to honor the psyche.
Red Book, p. 131.  Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

Red Book, p. 131. Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

When I truly examine my own habits, it’s clear that I fritter away enough time with gadgets each day to find the space for this kind of exploration.  It doesn’t need to be with the kinds of activities I outlined above.  I find it’s ok to schedule “time for inner work” the way I schedule time at the gym, but the most powerful new discoveries seem to emerge from those quiet voices at the edge of consciousness, the tiny impulse it is so easy to overlook in our busy lives.

Such an impulse woke me one night at 1:00am one morning.  Instead of going back to sleep, I got up and wrote down a sentence.  That led to a paragraph, and then a page, and then another.  That was the start of the first (and so far only) novel I’ve finished.

Something similar happened to Jung at his tower.  He gave the stonemason at a quarry precise measurements for blocks he needed to build a new wall, but one of the stones arrived in error; it was square, about 20″ on each side.  When Jung saw it, he said, “That is my stone, I must have it!”  Over time, he carved a testament to his life and work on stone which “stands outside the Tower, and is like an explanation of it.  It is a manifestation of the occupant.”

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

In a seminar in 1939, Jung said:

“We have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul – the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill – this awful, banal, grinding life in which they are “nothing but.”

The Bollingen Tower became a vital way for Jung to live the symbolic life, but he would have been the first to insist that we don’t need to carve stone or build houses to find it for ourselves.  All we need is the hunger.  And the will to begin.