We were on our way to Black Rock City, that visionary oasis in the Nevada desert, riding in this bus that I’d painted over summer. Driving up the 395, forty miles north of Bishop, past the sierra peaks of Mt. Whitney and other big craggy mountains, the road starts to climb up over the pass. At some point the radiator over heated and a crack that had been fixed opened up and we pulled over to the side of the road. Waited a while and this grizzled looking repair guy shows up. He took a look at it and suggested we come to the camp where he lives where he said hed fix us up. We all looked at each othera, wondering what that might entail.
So we coasted back down the mountain and turned off the highway into the grassy expanse of the Owens Valley. We parked the bus next to a snaking river and had the whole range of the sierras as our view. Not such a bad detour, all things considered. The folks were suer excited about the bus- what a psychedelic wonder!
The day passed. Nightime arrived and, in the cold wind, James, our repairman, showed back up and went at it on the engine. I fell asleep and, latean the others went and hung out with james, his wife, and some others.
Morning sunrise on the mountains, the grass a golden green, the twisting river a deep blue… Things were progressing along. Brown’s Owen River campground was a sweet stay. While we had intended to be on the playa early, this diversion wasn’t so bad.
And many many thanks to James and co for taking care of us. If you are ever up along the 395 and want a place to camp, stop by: Brown’s Owen River Campground. 760-920-0975. 5 miles east of Hwy395, 5 miles south of the mammoth exit.
Now, with the engine running, we are back on the road, on our way to the Black Rock City.
I’ve carried a sketchbook with me since I was 16. Barring a few rare instances when one was not available, it’s always been a Strathmore sketchbook. The Strathmore seemed to have the nicest texture amongst day-to-day sketchbooks, the spiral binding is durable, the paper strong enough for average (and often times above average) wear and tear. I tried a few hard-backed journal style books here and there. They were decent but they aren’t as handy; the spiral binding and ability to lay flat are important. At some point or another, I decided the 5.5″ x 8.5″ size was best. It packs down well: fitting just about anywhere, seems unobtrusive even sitting on a table with someone else. Larger sketchbooks declare themselves to the world, as well as the mind. The smaller book is a tad more innocuous and, when the mind approaches the empty page it doesn’t seem so daunting. Afterall, this is for sketches – illustrations of a feeling, intimations of a curve of a branch or a hip or the vast plane of awareness that is Mind. If you give it too much space, it’ll freeze up. Give it too little space and it feels cramped. Just enough, so that the window can rest upon the knee without feeling like there are distant corners that need to be filled, and it will submit and surrender itself. Yes, I trick my own mind into unlocking it’s secrets. But I would never tell it this. Only later, in paintings, do I begin to understand what those early sketches might have been insinuating.
This never-ending sketchbook has been carried with me on all journeys, to the most random of situations, and, in the most mundane of places, has opened up spaces in me that I didn’t know were there. It emerges while sitting in a cafe or at a bus stop, riding on a train or a plane, at my desk, waiting in an office, pr pausing during a hike on a mountainside. The images are rarely planned. They ride along a stream of consciousness echoing my emotional and psycho-spiritual state mixed with my general will and momentum. By allowing the drawing its own narrative, the inner visual language expresses itself unhindered. The observant viewer will note the similarities amongst the imagery and different visual symbols and cues that show up over periods of time, again and again.
It just happens. I sit. I observe. I let my eyes relax. I let my mind… I let my mind just be. I set it adrift. I don’t try to force it into anything. I don’t attempt to still it but I don’t attempt to agitate it by thinking such things as “this had better be good” or “this is going to be a drawing for a painting”. I allow it to be whatever it is: a tidal wave, a simmering fire, a cool breeze, a breath. I notice how I’m sitting. How I’m holding the pen. I do all of these things and, at the same time, none of them: just sit and draw unself-consciously. I allow elements of nearby architecture or the shapes of leaves or roots of trees or a glimpse of a pattern to be points of departure. Our minds are shaped by the world around them as much as by their own preconditions. Why not allow the drawing the same freedom? The surface of the page gives way to a penetrable depth. I allow my instincts and intuitions, however subtle and unknown, to draw me onwards. Everything, however, seeks light for growth. It is nice to allow the drawing the same.
The sketchbook is a meditation tracing mental symbols, stories, and tangents, drawing out underlying connections, seeking, however organically, to find logical conclusions. It has it’s non sequiturs and moments of random association and completely free connectivity. It has moments of clarity, moments of abstraction, moments of pure thought and pure selflessness, and moments of complete, unadulterated, distraction. Then the lines take shape into something that I understand. I could expand on that, I think, I could make a painting out of that.
When I stand in front of my canvas, I flip back through sketchbooks, finding a drawing that speaks to me from a certain place, embodying a direction or vision that I wish to pursue. Only then do the symbols they contain begin to make sense.
Not too long ago I boarded a very crowded train on its way to San Diego and sat down next to a young woman of 20 or 21 or so. We started talking. She was on her way to meet with her church group and that they would be going to Haiti to help build houses. I had this mental picture of a continually revolving door through which an army of volunteer workers had passed over the past year. Better to build homes than hand out solar-powered bibles (yes… a group did that).
In any case, she asked what I did and I showed her some of my work. Inspired, she steered the conversation towards the obvious spiritual components of the paintings, asking me many pointed questions about my background, my intentions, etc. None of it came off as judgmental – just curious. She was very interested in what seemed to her to be an obvious connection with spirit while not proclaiming any religion system.
Eventually it came around to: “Well, do you believe in heaven? Where do you think we go when we die?”
I thought about it for a moment. I grew up in a very traditional Roman Catholic family. We had a clear direction; the same direction she believed herself to be taking – Heaven, home of God the Father.
I replied, in so many words:
The truth is, no one really knows what comes after we die. We have many people who have told us many stories and those stories are all based on that particular cultures value systems and the perspective of the storyteller. We don’t have any actual tangible proof one way or another. It’s all part of our glorious imagination. People have these near death experiences – who is to say if it is fact or fiction? Imagination or concrete truth? I have had dreams that were so incredibly real and yet have also believed myself to be remembering something that didn’t happen as I remembered it. So It’s hard to say what is actually real.
It’s best, I think, to start from the here and now. Essentially, everyone just wants to be happy, healthy, maintain a sense of freedom. So hopefully we do things with our lives that nourish that in ourselves as well as others. You know: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That sort of thing. In doing so, we create a certain momentum with our lives and our mental states.
Now, all of reality is perceived by our five senses in a certain way. We perceive a slice of it that our eyes and ears and tongues and so on all lock into place because that is the aspect that we experience and our brain, our conscious and subconscious mind, makes up stories around it. It’s the very visceral human experience. Of this vast sea of energy that exists around us, we perceive a very specific layer of it that we interact with. Our bodies too are a part of that perception. When we follow down the smaller and smaller workings of everything it is all very intricate and amazing. But we will always ever find the part that our senses and the extensions of those senses, can perceive. Everything else is supposition, story, extrapolation.
So there is this sea of energy and we are passing through it, from moment to moment, with a certain driving momentum. For some it is greed. For some it is lust. For some it is love. For some it is to see how much they can give. For some it is simply an ever changing state of happiness. And then, at some point, our physical body is snuffed out.
I really do believe there is a “spirit” of some sort or another – something that continues on after the physical body dies. It is whatever exists outside of – like an extension of – the physical body that we perceive. It is the momentum of our mortal life that propels this “spirit” onwards. The mental state of hell (and it exists most certainly) will propel one onwards into deeper layers of “hell” – whether it be flaming demons or reincarnations or levels of the underworld or whatever. It just continues. The same goes for the mental state of heaven. Then there is another mental state: just being, dissolving, continuously.
However, everyone, after death, I think, dissolved back into this ocean, moving along on their currents according to their momentum and, maybe, at some point, these currents surface again as bodies somewhere in some state of being, in this ocean of energy, should that momentum continue to propel it, like some current in the ocean.
So, she said to me when I was finished, do you believe in God?
I replied: If I were to call something “god”, I would call that vast ocean of energy “God”.
She thought about that for a moment and suggested that God was a specific being, somewhere, somehow, looking out for us.
But, I posited, that is to create separation. I am here, he is there. That sort of thing. There is just one vast ocean of energy that has neither beginning nor end. In the Gospel of Thomas (and I shared a bit about the Council of Nicea and how a specific story was desired to be told and other gospels were abandoned) Jesus is quoted as saying “Raise the stone and there you will find me; cleave the wood and there I am.” Link which is to say: God is in all things. God is in me. God is in you. God is in your finger. God is your fingernail. God is the dirt under it. God is everything. So, yes, you could say that I believe in “God”, that I believe in “Heaven” and that I believe in “Hell”. But I also believe that they are all constructs of our very vivid human imaginations and our somewhat more nebulous subconsciousness as it strives to create a sense of safety and identity.
The best thing to do, time and again, is to go back to that golden truth: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. All beings simply desire to be happy. So the very best we can do is to help ourselves (since we would like that as well) and others to experience that. And the best way to do that is to continually examine our motives, our methods, our means, and push ourselves and our egos and our hearts and our minds in whatever method or way presents itself towards further growth and ego-disolusionment.
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