Life passes through us like the wind. One moment we are infants, then children playing free with their fantasies but before long, the child is gone, carried off in life’s interminable turmoil. As adults, submerged in a flood of hallucinatory obsessions, we fight the good fight till we drop whereupon, mercifully, we return whence we came wherever that might be.
There are no words for it beyond that point. Just smoke from the funeral pyres or dead silence six feet under. So it seems we’re all just passing through. Passing wind, you might say. And it happens in the blink of an eye. Who will testify that we were even here? Whoever does will also soon be gone too.
What are we to think about our predicament? What are we to do? One response, the one promoted most energetically these days in the consumer necropolis, is the narcosis of narcissism. In other words, shop till you drop. Another is to put paid in full to your life before it puts paid to you. This explains in part the opioid epidemic, a staggering suicide rates among youth, and growing acceptance of Medical Assistance in Dying, the (MAiD) procedure. There is yet faith in God who is heaven but serious problems remain down here on Earth, proliferating by the day as the karmic boomerang of human avarice and over-population takes their toll.
Faced with this scenario, there are people like myself who completely lose it, running through the streets gesticulating madly and screaming at the top of their lungs. But where does that get you? One study shows that that if a person yells for eight years, seven months and six days he would have produced enough sound energy to heat up one cup of coffee. He can then drink this cup of coffee and get back to screaming in the streets.
This morning there was a middle-aged homeless woman sleeping near naked beside the Henry Moore sculpture, Large Two Forms, in Grange Park. I wondered as I watched her wake up and face the day if it weren’t the undulating bronze surfaces of the Moore, which had drawn her down to dream in its shadow but it may just have been the sheer exhaustion and bewilderment of living with no home.
She was gloriously large, round and graceful as she floated off like a cloud across the concourse, past the dog park and down the promenade, a fugitive figure from a Botero painting seeking refuge in one of our city’s most beautiful and art-friendly parks which, throughout the pandemic, had also become known as a haven for the homeless. I saw Madame Botero again a bit later beside the Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee Rose Garden – a gift to the city from the Monarchist League of Toronto – singing with rapturous operatic gestures and the voice of an angel. “My Wild Irish Rose” was her song. I’m sure the monarchists would have been thrilled. There’s no hiding from history.
“Ni mai pon”, Thai people say. There is no escape. Philosophers, poets and pundits from every culture have been talking for ages about transcendence or sublimation of our struggles through creative engagement with spirit through the arts but the present-day deluge of information on the Internet especially distracts us by stealing focus and burying wisdom alive in its wake.
It seems at times that we have forgotten how to converse with one other in any depth given the levels of psychobabble and surveillance that invade our private space from every platform of digital media. We instinctively resist meaningful engagement with the constant conjunction of harrowing extremes that define our world today with social media itself driving us into deeper denial, dissociation and despair.
Perhaps there isn’t enough time left in the hourglass to plumb the depths and relate meaningfully anymore. As a self-confessed luddite and cantankerous old crow I feel things are moving too fast, like the proverbial waters approaching a waterfall. A text message will do, Facebook figments, TikTok tangents, Snapchat superficialities – that’s enough for now. Yes, it is communication. But where is the communion in it? Young people have moved on from conversation to connection. The whole point is to keep informed and well attuned to opportunity. There’s money to be made and our kids are well wired up now as hostages on their iPhones.
A few generations hence we’ll take the whole show on the road to Mars having taken Mother Earth for all she’s worth. I wonder how long it will take us to trash future planetary conquests invoking an updated version of the doctrine of discovery. Mars is now in the crosshairs. The Martians undoubtedly are smarter than we are and know we’re coming. There is a lesson to be learned these days and always too late. We’re on a journey. It is a journey home to the heart of our humanity. We see and feel it so acutely all around us these day.
Fifty years ago Thomas Merton, the poet priest wrote these words: “The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes all political and social life a mass illness. Without this house cleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see we cannot think. The purification must begin with mass media. How?”
One way is to moderate the media sewage pumped into our private lives via the Internet. And then, in each his own idiosyncratic way, we can follow the Garden Path, which is contrarian from the outset. We understand that there is no prescribed path but the one each of us makes by finding a place in the world. We may not be able leave the noise of mass media behind entirely but, for short periods of time each day, we can embrace contemplative silence as a foundational practice in the arts and every sector of social service from education and health care to politics and policing. Such a minute but radical recalibration of our daily lives calls for insight, resolve and a good sense of humour.
In both our dreams and our waking life we must ride today’s carousel of chaos and complexity with buoyant determination. It is long voyage and one not without peril. Why? Because attempting to overturn the enthronement of money in today’s world by replacing profit with prophecy is a fool’s errand to be sure, but one which is vital for our continued survival. In excising the poison core of materialism we nurture the human person in community. We use contemplation, imagination and the instruments of creative process such as art, music, theatre, storytelling and literature to stay awake in a culture that puts us to sleep.
To know is to remember you have seen. To see is to know without remembering. (Orhan Pamuk)
In silent communion with all beings while making art we experience deeper communion with ourselves. The silence speaks in images and stories, music and songs that arise from the depths. To give one example: with the practice of Mystery Painting we enter a space of reflection where somewhat baffling cartoons which we create ourselves yield a different perspective into life’s complexities along with the imaginative insight needed to deal with them.
Mystery Painting is one of seven seed practices we use on the Garden Path to encourage creativity and deeper dialogue in community. You can read more it in a book I have recently published, Playing for Real. For more information on this book and to order it from Amazon please click on the Publications heading at the top of this page.
The arts help us make peace with loneliness, anxiety and depression, finding new ways of seeing and being with one another. We come home to the elemental truth that a person always has a place to be safe from misfortune. That place is her or his soul. By enlarging that space and including others we learn to suffer with everybody’s ills, tending our own by tending theirs.
Wassily Kandinsky, along with many other modern artists, believed in painting as a healing ritual that cures mental anguish and weans men away from materialism. “Painting shall wean me from my fears,” he said as he passed wind one day and later passed beyond to explore yet more profound realms of mystery and delight in his art.