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There is no There There: The Practice of Possibility

Remarks for Authentic Yoga Gathering, 10/23/09

I organized this meeting because I am interested in yoga in its various manifestations and Buddhism; where they resonate and where they diverge in both theory and practice; and whether and how they can be meaningfully integrated. My interest is not merely theoretical, I have struggled at the boundary of yoga and Buddhism, trying to reconcile differences in what may ultimately be incommensurable traditions (but I take heart in Isaiah Berlin’s assertion that we need to give up “the conviction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end be compatible and perhaps even entail each other” (Four Essays on Liberty, p167). In any event, my own idiosyncratic, perhaps heretical to both realms, synthesis of the two has been quite powerful. It began about five years ago when I was experiencing a pretty significant shift in my life--my father had just died; shortly thereafter, my mother discovered that she had stage-four breast cancer, so her death was imminent, too.  I had been practicing vipassana and dzogchen meditation for twenty years but my asana practice had long since fallen away.  My brother, Jim, with whom I had not been close in a while, had commenced a pretty serious asana practice and invited me to join him.  I soon discovered, perhaps with some irony or maybe for the very reason, that as my parents’ bodily incarnations were ending, asana practice provided an embodiment, a physicality and groundedness to my meditation practice that, until I experienced it, I did not know that I was longing for and lacking.  It also renewed my connection with my brother, and with that the return of a deeper feeling of familial interconnection that had been absent for a while.  My world was changing and my actions were changing my world.  That is the power of these practices for me— asana and vipassana support my individual incarnation, by which I also mean creativity and how I show up in the world. They also steep me in the awareness that I am not separate.  And this awareness reverberates and is manifest, I think, I hope, in all my interactions in the space of my existence.


The philosopher and scientist Jacob Brownowski describes the process of science—the process by which we gain empirical knowledge-- as that of decoding a “completely connected world.”  This decoding requires dividing that completely connected world into what is relevant and what is not relevant to the matter at hand. But in so doing, Bronowski says, we do violence to the connections in the world.  We must always bear in mind that we are “certainly not going to get the world right, because the basic assumption that [we] have made about dividing the world into the relevant and irrelevant is in fact a lie. When we practice science [and this is true of all our experience], we are always decoding a part of nature which is not complete.  We simply cannot get out of our own finiteness.” 


Getting out of our sense of finiteness—other than that how’d you like the play Mrs. Lincoln? Coming to realize that we are not separate and that what we do, how we are, the choices we make, the actions we take—how we incarnate--have consequences that ripple or splash far beyond what we take to be our separate selves.  Sixty years later, another philosopher/scientist, Alva Noe, offers a theory of consciousness that not only brooks no separateness at all, but posits that “the fact that we think and feel and that a world shows up for us, “ (Noe p. 10) is not some individual activity that happens in an individual brain, but rather “the joint operation of brain, body, and world . . . consciousness is an achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.” (ibid). “Experience,” Noe says, “is enacted by conscious beings with the help of the world.” (ibid, p. 46).  “Maturation,” he asserts, “is not so much a process of self-individuation and detachment as it is one of growing comfortably into one’s environmental situation . . . changes force you to renew yourself by developing anew in relation to new external structures, new habits, new modes of involvement with the world around you.” (id, p. 51). “I no more wrote than read the book which is the self I am . . .” wrote Delmore Schwartz. This, renewal of each whole animal, each of us, in its--our environment, is Noe’s version of individual incarnation, and the opportunity for conscious, intentional, creative action. “Creativity,” said psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott (Home is Where We Start From, Living Creatively, p. 39), “is the doing that arises out of being.”


So, we exist in an “environmental context” that includes everything with which we share this planet, this universe, and though Noe does not say so, this “self-renewal” implies that our actions thus reverberate, subtly or grossly; that as we adapt, we are at the same time, altering our environmental situation: at some level, everything is affected.  That being the case, it seems to me wise to bring some consideration to how we develop “anew,” how we incarnate, in the ever-changing world around [us].  To rally the concept that that incarnation embodies for the “higher purpose of developing of wisdom,” suggests the Venerable Nananda, or short of that, to the extent that we can, to become more aware of our actions—what we may be setting motion (alas, at some level, our view will always be, finite, partial). An authentic yoga, or at any rate a useful one, can help us do that—both support our incarnation—the manifestations of our necessarily finite concepts (after all, that is what a concept does—distinguish things—sometimes separating, sometimes integrating, recombining) and enhance our awareness of the context in which that awareness arises. 


As I have said, meditation and asana, the practices with which I have the most experience, have been tools, scientific methods if you will, that have illuminated for me the truth of this not separateness, this interconnection. And with this increased awareness, sometimes slowly dawning, sometimes arising as a flash of insight, the obscuration of individual “finiteness” begins to dissipate, the vise of ego loosens its grip a little (it is all relative of course, my flash of insight is somebody else’s point so obvious that it doesn’t even merit mention—but as Pema Chodron exhorts, “start where you are.”).  With this loosening my view is opened and I find my own boundary of what is relevant broadened, and I am open to surprises, I see the world freshly. This “seeing everything afresh all the time,” defines a creative life Winnicott says (.  Winnicott, p. 41.).  “Fresh awareness of whatever arises . . .  is sufficient,” says the Ninth Karmapa  ( Ninth Gyalwang Karmapa Mahamudra: The Ocean of Definitive Meaning, Translated by Elizabeth M.  Callahan, cited in Mingyur).  This fresh perspective presents a new array of behavioral options.  I have at least the opportunity to consider a different response, as I negotiate the widened and ever changing topography of my mundane activities with the enhanced awareness that my actions affect it even as it affects me--a quantum view of self and world.  My own incarnation, my creativity, my work in the world is inextricably interwoven with this awareness. 


That’s what I mean by there being no “there,” there is no final destination, nothing to attain or even a static rest stop, there is only the ever evolving context, environment, the place in which and from which we act, creating and adapting to the conditions that we have co-created with the world (a pretty good definition of karma in the Buddhist sense I think).  This idea is expressed in many disciplines and traditions. For philosopher Richard Rorty it is the “endless, proliferating realization of Freedom, rather than a convergence toward an already existing Truth.”  (CIS, p. xvi).  For the Buddhists it is emptiness, the unlimited potential for anything to appear, change, or disappear (The Joy of Living:  Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness,p. 60, Yongey Mingyur et al). It is the space of the asana and the space within which the asana occurs.  It is the paradox that the Heart Sutra famously articulates, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”   It is the practice of possibility.


At some point I believe that we can actually integrate the understanding that there is no separate self or other in this world of interdependence and interconnection. Saul Bellow expresses such an epiphany in Humboldt’s Gift:


Once in a while, I get shocked into upper wakefulness, I turn a corner, see the ocean, and my heart tips over with happiness—it feels so free.  Then I have the idea that, as well as beholding, I can he beheld from yonder and am not a discrete object, but incorporated with the rest, with universal sapphire, purplish blue.  For what is this sea, this atmosphere, doing within the eight-inch diameter of your skull? (I say nothing of the sun and the galaxy which are also there).  At the center of the beholder there must be space for the whole, and this nothing-space is not an empty nothing, but a nothing reserved for everything.


For me it is an ever--evolving integration, this moving beyond the notion of a finite self.  I figure that is why they call it “practice.”  In the process we come to see the contingency of this identity we take ourselves to be, and recognize its historically conditioned nature.  We come to realize that our central beliefs—desires—ideas, concepts of who we are--are not intrinsic or inevitable; they do not refer back to some immutable verity beyond the reach of time, chance and intention and the conditions they give rise to.  This is very liberating.  We realize that we are not stuck with some predetermined destiny like Arjuna, but rather dwell in the emptiness of possibility where in every moment, we can choose how to incarnate—how to interact with the world.  A meaningful practice for me allows me to understand this ever more deeply. 


Since I am a theory/praxis kind of gal, I thought that I might offer the practice of the Brahmaviharas, the divine abodes.  As it happens, it is a practice that the Yoga Sutra (1.33) and Theravadin Buddhism share and I believe is predicated on this truth that we are “not discrete objects, but incorporated with the rest.”  It is a practice that, in fact, liberates us from our own finiteness. The Bramaviharas comprise metta,loving-kindness, karuna, compassion, mudita, sympathetic joy and upekka, equanimity.


On vipassana retreats I would dread the day of introduction of these practices—I was always more interested in the thrill of mindfulness practice.  It is so much more consonant with my intellectually oriented tendencies. I was never attracted to Brahmavihara practice until I actually experienced—felt—its power. That happened on a trek in Bhutan. My father was very sick at the time, and I decided that since trekking is basically one long walking meditation I was going to practice mettatowards my father for the duration of the trip. I am not sure what it did for my father, but if we are not discrete objects, I hope that at some level this practice relieved his suffering even as he inevitably died from the disease, —but in any event, I was amazed at what it did for me.  I repeated the phrases” may dad be happy, may he be healthy, may he be peaceful, may he be free and after a while, the difficulty of the methodical placing of one foot in front of the other in what often seemed like a never-ending climb at elevations of 14-16,000 feet, receded.  I found that my own suffering was relieved.  I suppose one might attribute this to the distraction of repeating a mantra—putting my mind elsewhere, and this may be true in part. But I think that it was something else. I think that when one heartfully engages in this practice, that the limiting view of self gives rise to a wider vista, an actual feeling, of interconnection, and as a result, one’s own suffering is diminished. Echoing Bronowski, Einstein said, 


A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.  


Brahmavihara practice does just this.


In the Yoga Sutra I have not discerned guidance from Patanjali on how to practice the Brahmaviharas.  And to the extent that there is any, it seems to focus on the self, not sending these wishes towards others. Traditional Theravadin Brahmavihara practice also begins with the offer of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity to one’s self, but also and ultimately offers it to others and all beings through the silent repetition of certain phrases. We begin with the self because it is believed to be the easiest place to start, although many find it difficult and assume it to be solipsistic. But it makes sense to me. We can’t wish these things for others until we have deeply integrated them into our own being. And if I want these things for myself, and I do, is it not probable that others, no matter how different from me they may be, want them too? Do we not all want to be happy, however differently, contingently that happiness may be defined? And once this awareness inheres, how can I, how can any of us, not then, want for others what we want for ourselves?   I have found that in systematically wishing for the happiness of others, my ego loosens its grip a bit, I am liberated from the limiting lens of self, the imprisoning delusions of separateness, however briefly, but with practice . . .


I understand the classic phrases to be All beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not on my wishes for them. This is not, however an endorsement of the blind acceptance of things the way they are.   Donald Rothberg in his book The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, offersThera Nyanaponika’s, a contemporary Buddhist teacher and author, interpretation of this phrase as simply that “our actions and responses to our present experiences are key to our happiness or unhappiness.”  Rothberg goes on to say that the Buddha explicates the notion of karma in terms of intention and the possibility of free action in the present moment. So this phrase can be interpreted as suggesting that it is our response in the present moment that is crucial for happiness, rather than only past events. 


Recently I had some up close and personal experience with the Bramavihara of upekka—equanimity.  Last August, the 6thto be exact, I was waterskiing on Lake Michigan. I knew the ski I was using was big, bad, heavy and nasty, but we were out in the middle of the lake and I didn’t want to schlep back to the boathouse to find one more appropriate.  As I was getting up on the ski, it suddenly veered out from under me to the left, and my foot, loose but trapped in the too big boot, veered right and I heard what I thought was a pop. I dwelled in the place of hopeful denial for a minute or two—this will get better in a moment—but I knew that I had broken my leg, yet surprisingly, it was OK—no big deal. Well, actually, from a medical perspective, it was sort of a big deal.  As it turned out, the pop was actually a snap-- the sound of a fracturing tibial plateau. To the urgent care facility I was rushed. Even as I understood the situation to be worsening, I calmly hoped for easy repair.  My hopes were systematically dashed. As I lay on the examining table with the doctor comparing my two knees—they seemed pretty much the same to me, I thought optimistically, the doc offered unbidden, “you’ve done a bad thing,” and whisked me off to the hospital for a CT Scan.


“Surely this can be handled arthroscopically,” I said calmly to the orthopedist the next day.  And he said, “no, this will require surgery.”  And again, ever hopeful, I said, “surely out-patient,” and he said, “Oh, I think you will want to stay in the hospital to manage the pain.”  One plate, seven screws, and two pain managing days in the hospital later, I was still strangely accepting.  I never flipped out or freaked out.  I just had the sense, “oh, this is what is happening to me now.”  I was sorta bummed about the disruption to my asana practice, but on the other hand, I had plenty of time for meditation and an excellent excuse for watching the entire four years of Battlestar Galactica in about a week.


When I got home and saw my kindly house-calling acupuncturist (I brought every alt healing modality to bear on my recovery), she said “boy am I glad too see you, your friends are very concerned, they can’t imagine how you of all people are going to cope with this situation.” I guess it was not generally believed by those who knew me well that equanimity was something I possessed in great measure. But I want them and all my friends, relatives, acquaintances, and people whose paths I have crossed in the course of this lifetime (an any others) to know that in the surgical report I was described as a “pleasant 54 year old women.”  That seemed to me worth framing as much as my law degree, admission to the Bar or California Coastal Commission appointment.   But in fact, my equanimity sort of surprised me, too.  I thought to myself, wow, after 20 years, this meditation stuff really works.  Alas, if any of you have driven with me, you know I have a long way to go. Nevertheless, it’s an encouraging start, and you have to take the long view. . .


The OED defines equamnimity beautifully, succinctly, as “the quality of having an even mind.”  Nyanaponika offers this example of a way to cultivate such evenness of mind integrating the other Bramaviharas.  In a fractal-like way they entail each other:


Lovingkindness imparts to equanimity its selflessness, its boundless nature and even its fervor. For fervor, too, transformed and controlled, is part of perfect equanimity, strengthening its power of keen penetration and wise restraint. 


Compassion guards equanimity from falling into a cold indifference, and keeps it from indolent or selfish isolation. Until equanimityhas reached perfection, compassion urges it to enter again and again the battle of the world, in order to be able to stand the test, by hardening and strengthening itself. . . 


Sympathetic joy gives to equanimitythe mild serenity that softens its stern appearance. It is the divine smile on the face of the Enlightened One, a smile that persists in spite of his deep knowledge of the world's suffering, a smile that gives solace and hope, fearlessness and confidence. . . 

" 'Equanimity. . .gives to lovingkindness an even, unchanging firmness and loyalty. It endows it with the great virtue of patience. 


Equanimityfurnishes compassionwith an even, unwavering courage and fearlessness, enabling it to face the awesome abyss of misery and despair which confronts boundless compassion again and again. To the active side of compassion, equanimity is the calm and firm hand led by wisdom — indispensable to those who want to practice the difficult art of helping others. And here again equanimitymeans patience, the patient devotion to the work of compassion.


This seems to me a pretty radical departure from what I understand about the philosophical underpinnings of classical yoga as I have said, and I have wondered how Patanjali meant to incorporate these practices in the Yoga Sutra.


In any event, in Brahmanvihara practice one is encouraged to create phrases that resonate personally—to make them one’s own.  For me they are May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be peaceful. May I be free. We first sit in a relaxed position—a bit different from the unmoving posture encouraged in Vipassana, sort of like what we Jews are allowed to do over Passover, get comfortable, elbows on the table OK.  We begin by sending these wishes to ourselves.  We then extend the same wishes to others: first a friend, then a neutral person, then someone we find extremely difficult and finally to all beings everywhere.  


Rather than talk about this, I thought that we might spend 20 minutes or so practicing the Brahmavihara of metta, loving kindness.  Even though I imagine that many of you, perhaps all, have engaged in this practice, I though that I might offer it as a guided meditation. In so doing, I will try to be as unintrusive as possible.  In a retreat setting we often spend several days or more offering these practices to each category of being, but today, we will truncate that a bit first focusing on ourselves, then this room, then all beings at Cavallo Point, and then all sentient beings everywhere.


So first, establish yourself in a comfortable position and settle in.  Now, bring your attention to your heart center. . .


When I do this I find that I begin to be suffused with a radiating warmth—you may experience this too. . .


I will offer the phrases that work for me, but please adapt them to something meaningful to you.  


May I be happy . . .


 May I be healthy . . .


May I be peaceful . . .


May I be free  . . .


May all of us in this room . . . 


May all beings at Cavallo Point . . .


May all beings everywhere . . .

No There There
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Art and the Commons

Art can help us reclaim a wholeness of mind and emotion, 

breaking down the boundaries of culture and consciousness.

This is a valuable step in reclaiming the commons.

Can works of art help us see the world anew and help us glimpse the ways in which human beings are truly connected to each other and to nature?  Can they help us slip the shackles of old habits of thought, and help us develop more integrated forms of feeling and thinking?  


It is perhaps an inescapable part of the human condition to “divide up the world” into mental categories.  The categories may be immensely useful, but they are also partial and misleading.  Philosopher and scientist Jacob Brownowski has described the process of science — the process by which we gain empirical knowledge – as that of decoding a “completely connected world.”  This decoding requires dividing that completely connected world into what is relevant and what is not relevant to the matter at hand, in order to create a meaningful context for study.


But this division, Bronowski warned, does violence to the actual, organic nature of the real world.  We must always bear in mind that we are “certainly not going to get the world right, because the basic assumption that [we] have made about dividing the world into the relevant and irrelevant is in fact a lie.”  Thus, we must be careful of the actions we take as a result of our often-necessary world-dividing activities.   


The creative personality, according to Bronowski — whether an artist or a scientist or an activist – is “one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change.” She understands that the world she paints or studies or acts on is but a fragment of a connected whole.  The integrity and truth of her creative act — her survival in fact – depends upon operating and acting within the truth of that connection. 


To the extent possible, then, our actions must arise out of an integral structure of consciousness, one that moves from the connections we are able to see – while bearing in mind that there are certainly connections we are not yet aware of.  If we return to a linear way of thinking, one that ignores the completely connected world, as Brownowski warns, we will get it wrong.  Alas, we frequently do.  


The Commons and Integrative Thinking 

To me, the commons provides anoverarching organizing principle that can help begin to heal some of the artificial divisions that we have imposed upon the world and ourselves.  It is a conceptualization that can help us create the world we want to live in.  It is consistent with the emergence of an integral structure of consciousness, a way of thinking that is fundamentally connected and relational.


Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist who studies memory and how it works, has said, “It took us a year to realize what should have been obvious from the start:  the cellular mechanics of learning and memory reside not in the special properties of the neuron itself, but in the connectionsit receives and makes with other cells in the neuronal circuit to which it belongs.”


His point is that memory exists only within a field of relationship.  Solitary, disconnected neurons, isolated from the larger system of the brain, could not be the repositories of memory.  Memory, Kandel realized -- and I would extend this to consciousness itself -- exists not in a place, but in the connections.  Memory, consciousness itself, seems to be a sort of personal commons. 


Our “personal commons,” in turn, blend into the memories of everyone else, giving rise to a kind of cultural commons.  The “commons” refers to all the things that we inherit and create jointly for universal use.  They are the things that we inherit or create that we must protect for the benefit of generations to come.  The commons includegifts of nature like topsoil, biodiversity, DNA, the sun, the wind, oceans and rivers.  They include civic and social inventions like roads, museums, blood banks, sidewalks, medicine, jazz and social insurance. The commons includes many inventions of the mind and culture, too, such as mathematics, democratic governance, law, languages and art and jokes.  


These lists are merely suggestive, not exhaustive.  To function as commons, resources must be accessible to everyone in a defined community, and governed with fairness and the future in mind.  A resource should be treated as a commons if it belongs to all of us – which itself may be an important moral and political question.  


There is a functional reason for treating something as a commons, too.  To privatize a resource and treat it as capital or sell it in the market – a process often called “enclosure” – can impede the liveliness of a resource and limit its evolution and development.  Too much development can destroy an ecosystem; too much copyright protection can shut down the sharing and re-use that creates culture; too many patents can thwart new scientific research.


Not everything comprises the commons in the most encompassing sense.  But those things that are essential to our existence – physically, spiritually, and intellectually -- certainly belong in the commons.  Natural resources and realms of knowledge, for example, need to be treated as shared wealth available to all.  Enclosing these resources is not only inequitable, it is ultimately self-defeating because it can imperil their physical or cultural survival, and preclude the possibility of their evolving or adapting.  


This is perhaps a good analytical tool for helping evaluate whether a given resource should be managed as a commons:  Does enclosure destroy the sustainability of a resource?  Even if we ignore this rather extreme standard, rules for collectively managing and sharing resources are needed to ensure that they can remain open and available now and in the future.


The meaning of ownership of cultural expression has become quite complex in recent years.  The art world, for example, is hotly debating the ethical rules for acquiring, owning and exhibiting antiquities.  Who is the proper owner of a work – a museum that once “discovered” and seized an ancient sculpture or vase, or the modern nation-states that now represent the people who live where a long-deceased civilization once flourished? 


Another example of disputed ownership is The Grey Album, by DJ Danger Mouse, a remix album that took a multitude of unauthorized samples from the Beatles’ White Album and combined them with rap lyrics from Jay-Z’s Black Album.  EMI, copyright holder of the Beatles’ albums, ordered Danger Mouse to cease distributing the album (though it continues to be available on the Web).  Yet the creative achievement of The Grey Album is undeniable; it was hailed by critics as one of the best albums of the year even though it was totally illegal to distribute it.   


Of course, artists have a right to protect their works and to sell them.  And people have a right to own art and display it in their homes.  But there are inevitably tensions when we put a culturally significant artwork into a tight envelope of private property rights – because the vitality and meaning of any artistic work inheres in it being part of a larger culture.  


Consider the social significance of a painting like Picasso’s Guernica.  It would be a wonderful thing to own, and the law certainly sanctions its private ownership.  But the power and significance of that painting comes from its installation in a public place, the United Nations.  The image affects countless thousands of people, and is a constant reminder to the people charged with creating a peaceful world of the horrors of war.  


Artworks that Point to the Commons

I would argue that we need a continuum of laws and ethical rules for determining what should be available to all – and what should be legally sanctioned as private property to protect the artist’s economic and creative interests.  But to make wise decisions – to take proper account of the commons -- we need to understand how artworks are indispensable tools for helping us see the world whole. They can help us integrate our consciousness with emotions and insights beyond our immediate grasp.  Artworks can be instruments for developing a commons consciousness.  


A good example is a public art project called Tevereterno (, which its creator, Kristin Jones, describes as “a multidisciplinary art project beginning in Rome:  for the revival of rivers internationally.”  As Jones describes the project on her website:  


In the center of Rome, suspended between sky and water, a river arena beckons.  This symbolic site, immersed in history yet isolated from the city, is the inspiration for visionary collaborative projects that bring artists and the public together for greater environmental awareness in the urban context.


TEVERETERNO (Eternaltiber) is a symbolic project, a resonant vision for rivers in an urban context.  The City of Rome, where Western Civilization began, and its source the Tiber River, are the inspiration. 


Motivated by the conviction that art is a potent catalyst for environmental awareness, TEVERETERNO aims to establish a vibrant river piazza:  The Piazza Tevere.


Here innovative contemporary art will bring the river to life by drawing the public to a new experience of the Tiber.  Each year, an evolving program will invite international artists to create site-specific, multi-disciplinary installations inspired by the river.


The vision is optimistic:  it begins with a single drop of Tiber River water, and is founded in the hope for rivers worldwide.


Each year, an array of new multi-disciplinary projects spanning environmental, artistic, and educational interests will activate the river site.  Invited participants will consider and interact with the context and dynamic elements (air, water, light, sound, stone) to create innovative works that transform the entire space.  The public becomes an active participant; their experience is part of the work. 


TEVERETERNO operates outside the traditional context of gallery, museum or theatre. Each program creates an intense, visceral experience of the present, amplified by the eternal flow of the river.


Jones did not set out to create art of the commons, and indeed, she never uses the word.  But Tevereterno is a magnificent manifestation of a consciousness working from that place. Tevereterno exists in the commons because it is about engaging ordinary people to join in preserving a timeless piece of nature, the Tiber River, while invigorating their shared culture.  The project uses classical motifs and images, particularly the she wolf, which is deeply embedded in the history and identity of Rome and Romans.  The project is collaborative and interdisciplinary and it evolves over time. 


Another fascinating conceptual work of art that grapples with the commons is Amy Balkin’s “Public Smog” (  The idea of the piece is for the public to create “a park in the atmosphere that fluctuates in location and scale.  The park is constructed through financial, legal, or political activities that open it for public use.”  By purchasing and retiring emission offsets in regulated emissions markets, for example, the public can make the atmosphere inaccessible to polluting industries and help create “a park” in the air.  Balkin writes on her website:  “PUBLIC SMOG only exists through use and continual action.  Passive use such as breathing is encouraged, as are activities for taking back the air.  Add your ideas, events, or activities to the database by sending an email to:”


My own current project, “A Catalog of Extinct Experience,” is a collaborative multimedia installation about the experiences in the natural world that are extinct or becoming so.  Seeing stars in the sky and being able to drink water directly from a stream are two examples.  In our increasingly urbanized world, most kids have never felt dirt under their feet; they have never experienced a world not built almost entirely by human hands.  


Such experiences provide an essential perspective on our place in the universe – on the one hand, how small we are, and on the other, an awareness of the significant consequences of our choices and actions.  These experiences offer a visceral sense of the interdependent and interrelated nature of existence that is common to every human.  They have been central to my own personal development, and should be available to others.  It is my hope that The Catalog of Extinct Experience will catalyze the action necessary to re-integrate our bodies and our consciousness with nature, and in so doing, promote integrative thinking and a concern for the commons.  


Integrative thinking -- commons consciousness -- is not only reflected in collaborative or environmentally oriented art.  The paintings of Joy Garnett spring from such a place.  Her paintings are based on photographs culled from the Internet, an artistic practice that has entangled her in copyright disputes and debates about the necessity of appropriation in creativity.  


Garnett describes her work ( as depictions of “apocalyptic scenes that evoke romantic landscapes.  My sources include military archives, journalistic photographs, tourist snapshots, scientific and pseudo-scientific artifacts, news images of current wars, and the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the recurring California wildfires.  Pulled from their contexts and reinterpreted as paintings, the true implications of these images become more elusive.  Completed in a single session, the paintings strike a visceral chord while examining the grey area between the mass media’s packaging of current events and the open-ended narratives of art.”  


Garnett regards the re-contextualization of images as indispensable to revealing their meaning.  But this practice has provoked at least one photographer, Susan Meiselas, to threaten legal action against Garnett for appropriating her copyrighted photographs.  Again, the tension between property rights and the cultural commons is made manifest through art.  (For more on the issues raised by artistic appropriation, see a blog post by artist Christopher Reiger at his blog, Hungry Hyena (


Emily Jacir has performed one of the more imaginative uses of art to emphasize our common humanity in the artificial and dangerous borders.  Jacir asked Palestinians from around the world, "If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?"  She then used her American passport and its accompanying "freedom of movement" status to realize the desires of people who have limited or no access to their own nation.  


Jacir’s exhibition documented the artist's fulfillment of Palestinians’ requests in text, photography and video.  The presentation is simple and straightforward: photographs of a visa denied, a family separated, a bill paid, an historic district obliterated.  A text in Arabic and English records each request and its outcome. (Some requests have been impossible to fulfill).


There are undoubtedly many other artists whose work is helping to promote integrative thinking and commons consciousness.  I think of the layered paintings of Julie Mehretu, (,

the integrative expression of Andrea Zittel (, and the imaginary maps of Benjamin Edwards (  To me, these works seem to arise out of a consciousness of the commons.


Art and Our Mental Organization of the World

Whether making art or engaging in the practical, day-to-day work of social change, there are critical moments, and needless to say, this is one, where it is wise to step back and consider our work in the most capacious context.  Massive global change is upon us – the already felt impacts of global climate change; the depletion of global fisheries; increased desertification in Africa; and the surge in immigration activism in the U.S. and Europe are but a few significant indicators.  

Our responses to this must come from all social sectors and disciplines, and from all realms of human endeavor.  Will we meet this change with regressive and fascistic means and methods, or will we design open and integrative solutions?  

This moment in history calls for nothing less than a huge shift in perception from one that sees the world in polarized, linear terms to one that operates from the commons perspective of interrelationship.  Robert Irwin put it this way in Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees:

What we’re talking about is changing the whole visual structure of how you look at the world....The implications are very rash time they have the ability to change every single thing in the culture itself because all of our systems – social systems, political systems, all our institutions – are simple reflections of how our mind organizes. So we’re talking about a different mental organization, which ultimately, in time, has to result in different social, political and cultural organizations because they’re the same thing. 


What I hope to do today is invite you, as powerful communicators — as instruments of change – into this conversation about how a commitment to the commons. The very essence and energy of our consciousness and work can liberate us from the false distinctions and divisions that may have been necessary in the past, but are anachronistic today.  And I hope that the examples I have offered today – and there are numerous others – make clear that swimming in the sea of consciousness and connection does not condemn one to abstraction.  Kristin Jones’ “Tevereterno” is an excellent example of that. Emily Jacir’s installation shows how an artist can craft something with precision so that the viewer/participant can viscerally feel, as well as intellectually understand, the inherent and intended connections.


Our success now requires that our efforts emanate from a completely connected, integrative consciousness, and must be directed towards the preservation and enhancement of a completely connected world.  Richard Rorty said, “that a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.”  The need to speak differently has never been so urgent; speaking differently is what artists do best.




This essay is based on a speech that Chris Desser gave to the California College on the Arts on March 10, 2008.  

Art & The Commons
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Only Connect



A few years ago I visited The Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Developer and impresario Steve Wynn built it to be the “greatest hotel of all time . . .romantic in a literary sense; a lovely place, perfect, even nicer than the real world.”[1]Wynn hired architect Jon Jerde, whom he considers to be “the Bernini of our time,” to design Bellagio, one of the “cathedrals of our time.” The hotel casino joins a panoply of other contemporary consumption-driven temples, including the Mall of America, also designed by Mr. Jerde. Bellagioopened in1998 to great media fanfare, including articles in The New York Timesand Vanity Fair.


Built at acost of $1.6 billion, the Bellagio Hotel and Casino attempts to replicate the Mediterranean style of its namesake and inspiration, Bellagio, Italy, which Wynn regards as “sort of a universal symbol of the good life.”  The real Bellagio is nestled in the Italian Alps next to the azure waters of Lake Como.  The Bellagio Hotel and Casino, located in the Mojave Desert,is nestled next to an eleven-acre man-made lake that exists only due to the possession of rights to hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, many miles away.   The power of that same river, harnessed by the engineering marvel of the Hoover Dam and transformed into electricity though an enormous hydroelectric complex, also lights up the Bellagio Hotel and Casino twenty-four hours a day.  Through a massive technological infrastructure, the integrated historical beauty of the village of Bellagio is reduced to TheBellagio.

The Bellagio offers an indoor botanical “experience” that replicates the seasons with “four different scenes—summer, fall, winter and spring.” “Every 90 days,” says Wynn, “we change for the season and then in each of the four seasons the blooms last for 30 days. The hotel's smell and look change every 30 days. . .We have 111 people in the horticulture department of this hotel. We can make a season change in 18 hours—three nights, six hours a night, on the graveyard shift. In the spring, we've got full size cherry trees—like in Washington." Wynn’s goal in creating Bellagio:   “The way God would do it if he had money.

Wynn’s trees and blooms are real, not silken substitutes:  the cherry trees of spring will be followed by an explosion of chrysanthemums in the summer. Fall will look like the Halloween New England of Ichabod Crane, and December a winter wonderland.  The seasons at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino do not change, they are changed. Unlike the seasons of Bellagio, Italy, which reflect the functioning of an integral ecosystem, the seasons at the Bellagio exist as discrete, unrelated “scenes.” They are “just this moment” frozen in time. 

I had never been to Las Vegas, but I’ve always imagined it to be pretty awful. When I read about the Bellagio, however, part of me feared that I might actually enjoy it. I find it hard to resist the comfort of a luxury hotel, I like to gamble, and I enjoy delicious food. The Bellagio Hotel and Casino promised all those things in abundance. I decided to go and see for myself. 

As the plane approached McCarran Airport, after crossing miles of subtle desert landscape, Las Vegas rose, Oz-like, out of the expanse of the Eastern Mojave.  I could see the Great Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower, Grand Central Station, the Empire State Building, Coney Island.  Every casino had a lake or a moat or a fountain and at least one pool. On leaving the airport, only the heat and aridity reminded me that I was in the desert.

The Bellagio’s lobby is a cacophony of jazz, rock and roll, standards, and new age music; it sounds like a dozen radio stations playing simultaneously. Slot machines ring and clang. The elevators on the way up to the rooms play classical music; rock and roll on the way down.  This was intended to adjust my mood for the activities of the bedroom or the casino. Although it appeared we were being shepherded with care, no one seemed to know where they were going.  In the casino, rather disoriented myself, I overheard a woman behind me say, “I have no sense of which way to go where.”  Her friend answered flatly, “I think people just give up and stay here.”

Despite almost continuous shoulder-to-shoulder proximity, patrons of the Bellagio seemed oblivious to each other.  Doors frequently closed in my face.  The dominant human contact came from accidentally bumping into people. Although together, we were in no way connected.  After a few hours of wandering around I felt claustrophobic, engulfed. The Bellagio’s gimmicks, gardens and gambling were distracting but lacked any depth or richness that would make them compelling.  Everything began to look, feel and sound the same. Weary and alienated, I retreated to my room. 

The view from the 21stfloor encompassed five swimming pools and a tangled intersection that joined the freeways surrounding the city. Smog obscured the mountains I knew were there.  With the curtains drawn, my admittedly comfortable, but nevertheless generic, hotel room could have been anywhere.  Although I was here specifically to experience the Bellagio, I just couldn’t face the noisy, crowded, maze downstairs.  I called room service and ordered dinner 

Having finished my perfectly cooked medium rare lamb chop and a quite good Caesar salad, I leaned against the abundant down pillows on my bed to savor my glass of wine.  For some reason the story of The Nightingaleby Hans Christian Andersen came to mind.  One of my childhood favorites, in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino that night, I began to understand what it was about. Written in the 1840s, the story is a reflection on the seductions of technology and its limitations, especially when it supplants our direct experience of the natural world.

In the Bellagio I felt acutely the contrast between the technologically manipulated and manufactured environment and the natural one.  The Bellagio felt uncomfortably isolated from the living world; it offered me nothing of essential value while insulating me from the connection to anything that might.  I could not shake a constant feeling of anxiety in this technologically sustained land of the lotus-eaters.




The Nightingaleis about an emperor of China wholived in a gorgeous palace entirely made of porcelain. The most sophisticated technology of the time had been deployed to create, like Bellagio, “a lovely place, perfect, even nicer that the real world.” Although the gardens stretched out as far as the eye could see, they ultimately came to a great forest, which sloped down to the sea. In that forest lived a nightingale, who sang so beautifully that even the poor fishermen, who had so many other things to do, would stop and listen.  

Travelers from all over came to admire the porcelain palace, but when they heard the nightingale in the forest, they all declared her to be the loveliest of all. They wrote books and poetry about her. Through these books the emperor came to know of the nightingale and demanded to hear her sing for him in the palace. When the emissaries of the court finally found her, the nightingale accepted their invitation, even though, she said, her song sounded best in the forest.

Back at the palace great preparations were made. At last the nightingale arrived, and at the emperor’s signal she sang.  Her song brought tears to his eyes.  The nightingale declined the golden collar he offered, saying his tears were reward enough.  The emperor kept the nightingale at court in her own gilded cage, allowing her to go out only with twelve servants holding a silken string fastened to her leg. 

One day the emperor received a large box containing a jewel-encrusted mechanical nightingale, a gift from the emperor of Japan. Around its neck hung a ribbon on which was inscribed: "The Emperor of Japan’s nightingale is poor compared with the Emperor of China’s." The bird sang when wound.  Everyone in the court was delighted. One day while the wind-up bird was singing and attention was diverted, the nightingale escaped into the woods.

Upon noticing her absence, the court decided that it preferred the wind-up bird anyway.  With the real nightingale you could never tell what was going to be sung; with this bird everything was settled.  The poor fisherman, however, who heard the wind-up bird said, "It sounds prettily enough, and the melodies are all alike; yet there seems something wanting, I cannot exactly tell what."

 Sitting in the contrived elegance of my hotel room at Bellagio that night, I had the same feeling. Although this environment tried to anticipate my every need and respond with comfort and diversion, something was missing.  I knew what the nightingale sounded like—her song was the icy, sweet and delicious taste of the mountain water I drank as a teenager when I went backpacking in the Sierra with my friends. Her song was the sound of crashing waves on the beaches of Mexico where as a child, I sipped coconut milk while leaning against the palmthat had provided it. The nightingale’s song was the subtle and varied fragrances of the roses growing in my father’s garden. 

Yet all too often, like the emperor and his courtiers, I become enamored of the mechanical delights around me, and I do not even notice when the nightingale slips away. In San Francisco, my climate-controlled house reliably keeps me comfortable and protected from the elements.  My “Fast Track Pass” allows me to bypass the long lines of bumper-to-bumper congestion as I travel back and forth across the the Golden Gate Bridge.  My cell phone saves me precious minutes.  It enables me, while enroute, to warn people that I am early or late for a meeting or lost and need directions. While grocery shopping, I can simultaneously check the wait at my favorite restaurant or order movie tickets. I regard email, voicemail and the Internet as essential to my life; they allow me to be readily in touch with people and to handle business easily and quickly. 

Like the emperor’s courtiers, I am glad for technology’s predictable song. I depend on it without question. In the back of my mind I sometimes notice something is missing, but usually, with nearly unconscious acquiescence, I succumb to the technologically rich environment that eases and encompasses my daily life.  Only when I find myself without these conveniences do I really remember what is missing and how essential it is.



One summer I spent a month at the Blue Mountain Center, in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Built as one of the “great camps” at the beginning of the 20thcentury, it is now a retreat for artists and writers.  The Blue Mountain Center is a series of craftsman-style structures each with a view of Eagle Lake through broad-leafed maple trees. Technology there is minimal.  While the erratic electricity was sufficient to power my miraculous office-in-a-box laptop, there was only one pay phone and one fax to be shared among the twenty residents. Cell phones were prohibited. Sending and receiving email, something I normally do several times an hour, required an inconvenient trip to the basement. 

At first, being technologically limited felt like a huge inconvenience.  Before long, however, as the distractions of these mediating technologies fell away, a more finely tuned awareness of my surroundings began to arise.  My trips to the basement dwindled to a few times a week.  Uninterrupted by the ringing of my own cell phone and the pseudo symphonic signals of others’, spared overhearing the loud and uninteresting phone conversations of strangers, I found myself tuning into the sounds of the place itself. I realized that when I am on my cell phone, regardless of where I am physically—in my car, walking down the street, in some store--mentally I am in the ether of the conversation.  Where I am is nowhere. Without the distraction of phone calls, without the illusion of connection through fax and email, I began to connect to the place where I actually was.

At Blue Mountain I ran every day, about six miles through the forest.  The loamy path was soft and springy, so much more forgiving to human knees than the asphalt road that I usually pound.  At home I cannot conceive of running without my iPod, in part to shut out the noise of the city, in part to distract me from the boring and sometimes painful experience of running itself.  But running in the woods at Blue Mountain felt different and I wanted to be able to fully experience it. I set the iPod aside and ran in silence.  The quiet of the forest was palpable against my ears; it was pierced by the trilling of woodcocks and wood thrushes, the wind through the birches, the rustling of surprised creatures as they darted away, unseen, through the leaves. My senses were engaged. I felt sharply aware.

With no city lights or street lamps, it was very dark at night; the stars were profuse. The big dipper was perfectly framed in my bathroom window. My evening reverie was accompanied by the calling of loons, the sound of water lapping. Alert and present as I gazed up at the Milky Way, I felt connected, related, a part of something greater than myself.  I felt at home in the universe.  

This natural experience was not, of course, without its discomforts.  The only “climate control” in my room was a portable fan that simply moved around the unrelenting heat that set in for a few days. My brain slowed, my body felt heavy. Screens on the windows offered the most advanced comfort-providing technology, but even they were insufficient to keep out the noseeums.  For several nights I was beset by them.  I scratched my countless bites to the point of drawing blood.  The bed sheets excruciatingly abraded the sores on my legs, but without their cover I was afraid I would get more bites.  I could find no distraction—even reading was out of the question since the light I required would be a beacon for the bugs. 

In the moments when my world was defined by the discomfort caused by this tiny scourge, I watched my own futile attempts to escape it—to resort to benedryl or cortisone-- anything--for relief. I do not like to suffer, but suffering, an unmediated (and ultimately unavoidable) experience, is quite illuminating. The pain heightened my awareness of my body and the experience of being alive at that moment in that place. I would have preferred Blue Mountain without the noseeums and, while I would have taken anything to relieve the discomfort, I would not have altered that world to avoid it. Horrible as the noseeums were, they were part of an intricately connected environment. Bug free Bellagio, comfortable and opulent though it was, felt deadening and insulated; I couldn’t wait to get home.  When my month at Blue Mountain was over, I did not want to leave nor return to my technologically mediated life.  I had rediscovered what was missing. 




In The Origins of Knowledge and Imaginationeminent mathematician and biologist Jacob Brownowski said, “I believe that the world is totally connected: that is to say, that there are no events anywhere in the universe which are not tied to every other event in the universe.”[2]Even if the “event” is the simple experience of a rose or a noseeum bite, when a Bellagio designer is not calibrating the fragrance level or programming when and how I will have a particular experience, I can know that connection directly. 

The experience of such connections, while freely available in the natural world, is not limited to it. Visiting Chartres Cathedral I experienced this same totality of presence. I felt focused and concentrated, in awe of the boldness of vision and purpose that created such a majestic structure. The jewel colors of the stained glass windows with their images of suffering and redemption penetrated not only the cathedral’s soft darkness but also something inside me. I felt the loosening of the boundaries that isolate a self; I felt enveloped in a unifying intimacy with the strangers around me. The specific place and specific moment were fixed in time, yet also transcended time. 

Impressive medieval technologies were responsible for raising the edifice that evoked this experience, but the force I felt intimately connected to was something other than the sheer physical or mechanical power to erect a monument, even one so large and magnificent.  In his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, Adams devotes an entire chapter, The Virgin and the Dynamo, to the study of how power and force shape people and history.

Although Adams marveled at the new technology of dynamos introduced at the Great Exposition of 1900 in Paris, he knew that there was another “kingdom of force” equally powerful, if not more so.   “All the steam in the world could not,” said Adams, “like the Virgin, build Chartres.”I knew what he meant.  At Chartres I could feel the élan vital, the force that created it, and I was silenced.  For some time afterward I did not want to speak or be spoken to.  Generating this experience was surely the intent of Chartres’ designers and builders.  It was the perception of connection, the apprehension of what, according to Adams, mediaeval science called “immediate modes of the divine substance” and what I, less theologically inclined, call direct experience. 

Such unmediated experiences are not limited to the natural world. Painter Barnett Newman tried to evoke this experience of connection in his work. When I stand before Newman’s The Stations of the Cross, a series of fourteen canvases in black and white, I feel through their terrible beauty, the suffering that is unavoidable in life.  In an article about Newman, Arthur C. Danto wrote, “a picture represents something other than itself; a painting presents itself. . . Painting and viewer coexist in the same reality.”[3]As Danto describes it, I “feel myself there, in relationship to the work, like someone standing by a waterfall.”[4]For Newman this awareness of place, self and relationship, necessarily encompasses both pain and exaltation; without both, there can be no wholeness.

The actress Fiona Shaw recently afforded me a similar experience of connection in her performance of Euripides’ Medea. Shaw was not a window into Medea, a picture of Medea—she wasMedea, the spurned sorceress who exacts revenge on her husband by murdering their children and his betrothed. Shaw portrayed Medea’s indecision over murdering her children with excruciating agony. "I must do it, I can't do it," she wailed,and although I knew the end of the story, her extremity was so immediate I hoped she might yet change her mind. By the end of the play I understood Medea’s choices and the actions that followed; and I experienced the pain of her impossible situation. Science and technology may have advanced dramatically in 2400 years, but we humans are pretty much the same. None of us can escape the price of the human condition.  We recognize each other in the happiness and suffering that connect us.  


Like experiences in the natural world, Chartres Cathedral, Newman’s paintings, and Shaw’s Medea are conduits of connection.  As they reveal and illuminate the full spectrum of human experience, we find ourselves enfolded in a universe that encompasses all of our foibles and inspires all of our greatness; in that embrace we are restored, made whole.  Experiences in the natural world have the same effect, perhaps even more profoundly. Through them we discover and can feel our relationship to all life and the planet that sustains us.  Through that connection, our lives become more meaningful—more purposeful.  In Howard’s Endby E.M. Forster, Margaret exhorts her husband to open his heart to such direct experience—in both the natural world and the humanly constructed one--so that he may live a more complete and integrated existence:  “Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon. . .Live in fragments no longer.”[5]



Several years after the nightingale fled, the emperor became gravely ill.  By this time the wind-up bird had worn out and was too fragile to sing more than once a year. Because there was no one there to wind it, the bird sat silent on its pillow next to the ailing emperor. Death entered the room and stared at the monarch with his cold, hollow eyes.  Terrified, the emperor lay helpless.  Suddenly, through the open window came the sound of the most beautiful singing.  It was the nightingale.  Hearing of the emperor's illness she had come to sing to him of hope and trust.  As she sang, the emperor slowly gained strength. 

The grateful emperor wanted to reward the nightingale for banishing death, but she wanted nothing.  Her reward, she replied, had been his tears the first time she sang. She stayed with him until the next morning when he woke, fully recovered. The emperor asked her to live with him at the palace and sing when she pleased; he would destroy the artificial bird.  The nightingale told him not to do that, that the bird did well as long as it could.  The nightingale refused to live in the palace, but promised to return and sing to the king of “those who are happy, and those who suffer; of the good and the evil hidden around you; of the faraway fishermen and peasants.”

The story’s finale reveals the essential difference between the force of nature and the limited power of technology. The ability of the nightingale’s song to heal rests on the fact that it leaves out nothing. She sings of beauty and happiness, but does not shirk from singing of evil and suffering as well.  Offering the emperor no buffer from the totality of his realm, the nightingale connects him to the lives of those in his kingdom who support him with their fish and grain but whom he never sees. Through her song, the emperor expands his awareness beyond his insular porcelain walls and discovers his relationship to a larger world. The nightingale sings the truth of what is, and through her song the emperor is made whole.Even if the emperor had succeeded in making the mechanical bird sing, it would have failed to invigorate him.  Its predictable song could not express or evoke the feelings that the all-encompassing song of the living bird could.  Inanimate and mechanical, the wind-up bird could not create for the emperor the essential experience of connection. 

Alone, like the emperor, in my hotel room at the Bellagio, I had available to me a wealth of technological distractions and entertainments:  first run movies, DVDs, a CD player and a wide choice of music, a Jacuzzi, a fully loaded minibar. These technologies dazzled with their power to amuse but they did not inspire. Bellagio felt like the antithesis of Chartres. The experience of Bellagio offered me mind-numbing distraction; Chartres afforded me a deeper connection to myself and the world, 




With each experience of connection I discover that I must push out the boundaries of the relevant further and further. Thisever-widening perspective affects how I relate to other people--those near as well as those on the other side of the world.  It affects the way I act upon the natural world, and it affects the choices I make in the humanly-constructed environment.   As the boundary of what is relevant to me expands, I am increasingly confronted withthe question of how my behavior and my choices affect this interconnected whole. Through these experiences of connection and the insights they have engendered I discovered the purpose and passion of my life—doing what I can to ensure that this planet continues to be a place where all people have the opportunity to experience the power of connection that helps them discover their own passion and purpose in life.  Inherent in these experiences is the desire to preserve the opportunity for others to know them.

Brownowski  describes the process of science—the process by which we gain knowledge-- as that of decoding a “completely connected world.”  This decoding requires dividing that completely connected world into what is relevant and what is not relevant to the matter at hand. But in so doing, Bronowski says, we do violence to the connections in the world.  We must always bear in mind that we are “certainly not going to get the world right, because the basic assumption that [we] have made about dividing the world into the relevant and irrelevant is in fact a lie. When we practice science (and this is true of all our experience), we are always decoding a part of nature which is not complete.  We simply cannot get out of our own finiteness.” [6] 

To artists who convey the force of connection through their work, nature is essential to the creative process. For writer and painter John Berger, landscape painting is about experiencing that moment of wholeness--the connection--that arises in direct awareness.  For Berger, “the process of painting is the process of trying to re-achieve at a higher level of complexity a previous unity which has been lost.”[7]  For abstract painter John Wells, direct experience of the natural world is both the object and the source of his creative force. “. . .all around the morning air and the sea’s blue light, with points of diamond and the gorse incandescent beyond the trees; countless rocks ragged or round and of every color; birds resting or flying, and the sense of a multitude of creatures living out their minute lives. . . All of this is part of one’s life and I want desperately to express it; not just what I see, but what I feel about it. . . but how can one paint the warmth of the sun, the sound of the sea, the journey of a beetle across a rock, or thought of one’s own whence and wither? That’s one argument for abstraction. One absorbs all these feelings and ideas:  if one is lucky they undergo an alchemistic transformation into gold and that is creative work.”[8]

The creative personality, according to Bronowski—whether an artist or a scientist or an activist “is always one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change.”[9]She understands that the world she paints or studies or acts on is but a fragment of a connected whole, and the integrity and truth of her creative act depends upon operating and acting within the truth of that connection.  Nobel prize winning biologist S.E. Luria distilled Bronowski’s message to this: “that the integrity of the doer should be matched by the vision of the thinker;  that such vision consists as much of what the viewer projects outward as of what it receives; that passivity before the supposedly inexorable march of events—whether the Industrial Revolution or the mechanization of society—can only lead to slavery; and that freedom must be created by the interaction between human wisdom and the physical world.”[10]

 Now, perhaps more than ever, if we are to survive meaningfully on this planet we must interact wisely with the world.  The choices we make about science and technology, as individuals and societies, must be regarded as creative, world-altering acts made withinthe context of the whole.This awareness has rarely guided our actions in the past but it must guide us now lest our creations continue to systematically annihilate that which what matters most: Because of the off-road vehicles and tractor-trailers that allow cattle grazing at 7000 feet, cattle dung have polluted most Sierra streams with giardia, an intestinal parasite, and I can no longer drink the Sierra stream water I once relished. 

There are far fewer palms trees now than there were when I sat sipping coconut milk on the beach in Mazatlan only decades ago.  Their habitat has been destroyed by urban development and their seeds eaten by the foraging pigs and other animals that are introduced to support expanding urban populations. Today 80 percent of the palms in the world are endangered.[11]

While the roses in my father’s garden still bloom, fourteen percent of all rose species are endangered.  Their habitat has been imperiled by development and the seeds of invasive exotics that hitch a ride on our shoes and clothing as we travel on planes, trains and automobiles or find their way into packing crates shipped on freighters or by rail.[12]In fact, one out of every eight plants on the planet is imperiled—nearly 34,000 plant species at last count.[13]With each of these losses, not only is the opportunity to experience them severed, but the whole web of relationship within which the plant exists is affected. As the self-perpetuating fabric of nature disintegrates, our opportunity to experience a connected self in a connected world is diminished. 

On my final evening at the Bellagio, I went up to my room to pack. As I watched darkness descend on the desert, the glow of the Strip’s bright lights and neon masked the stars.   A line from a poem by Richard Shelton came to mind, “Oh my desert, yours is the only death I cannot bear . . .”[14]If we capitulate to an ever more mediated and constructed world, then the death of the desert and all that it represents is certain. The nightingale enjoins:  Only connect. . .  [15]


[1]All quotes in first three paragraphs are from Vanity Fair, October, ’98

[2]Origins of Knowledge and Imagination, Jacob Bronowski

[3]The Nation(6/17/02)


[5]Forster, E.M., Howard’s End1999 Modern Library Paperback Edition, p. 170

[6]Id. at 59

[7]Berger, John,  The Look of Things, Painting a Landscape

[8]Gayford, Martin and Karen Wright, The Grove Book of Art Writing, pp. 40-41

[9]Bronowski, p 123

[10]Id. At xii.

[11]By Carlo Morici,Paschalococos and the Disappearing Palms,Chamaerops No.40, published online 19-02-200, 

[12]WILLIAM K. STEVENS Plant Survey Reveals Many Species Threatened With Extinction The New York Times April 9, 1998,p. A-1


[14]From Requiem for Sonoraby Richard Shelton

[15]Thank you, thank you to Shoshona Alexander, editor extraordinaire, for her invaluable help in bringing this essay into being and Daniel Sarewitz for his exquisite editing sense and sensibility.

Only Connect
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