I feel my artworks, to a great degree, they are desires that will never be fulfilled. But that doesn’t impact on what we do manage to do. Just as I feel that the great part of the demand for freedom lies in fighting for it, and not just in it being a goal. I feel that the process of striving is where value lies in life. In the process of living our life, whether it’s an artist’s, a theoretician’s or a philosopher’s, we’re doing something very difficult.
The Chinese government took away Ai Weiwei’s passport more than a thousand days ago. Each morning as he begins work in his Beijing studio, the artist places a bunch of fresh flowers in the basket of a bicycle chained outside. The bike belonged to a young German man working in China who was also arrested; upon release, before he returned to Germany, he arranged for it to be given to Ai, who has made it a symbol of freedom. Ai has said the flowers will stop when he gets his passport back.
This morning before I began to work, I listened to a meditation tape. The teacher’s soothing voice instructed the meditator to notice thoughts and feelings with interest but without effort, always returning awareness to “a natural state of ease and contentment.” The underlying idea is that ease and contentment are indeed our natural state, that resistance, discomfort, and anxiety are merely fleeting interruptions. If we can learn to experience them without attachment, we can remain at ease.
Then I read Jay Michaelson’s interview with Rabbi David Cooper, a wonderful meditation teacher with whom I once studied. He is retiring on account of illness from his active public practice. I am certain that countless others join me in wishing him a complete healing. In the interview, he greets a very serious diagnosis with something beyond equanimity—a powerful sense of liberation comes through. “I feel very well-prepared as a result of all of the inner work that I’ve done to actually look forward to whatever the outcome is going to be with the diagnosis.” He goes on to say that
We also have to be realistic. The people that I know who practice and practice eventually all realize somewhere down the line that wherever they thought it would take us, it didn’t. I used to go around the Western world and ask: Do you know anyone who’s enlightened? The answer was always zero. That’s very disconcerting. But if what we’re looking for is just a certain kind of tranquility, not trying to walk on water, then the practice really works beautifully. In my case, where I have benefited is being able to take a diagnosis that doesn’t sound too optimistic, and to see the benefits and possibilities that it opens up. And that’s not because of my personality, that’s because of the practice that I’ve done. There’s something there that allows me to see the world through different eyes.
I find myself so often toggling back and forth between these two truths. For the individual spirit, greater equanimity demonstrably comes through the experience of releasing the mind from thoughts and feelings that restrict immediate presence. That can happen in meditation, and I think also in the practice of art, releasing constriction through acts of imagination and redemptive gestures. For human beings in society, as Ai says, “the great part of the demand for freedom lies in fighting for it.” In human civilization, striving for freedom confers value. Taking it for granted cheapens it until the meaning drains away and freedom is lost.
In one realm, attachment to desire is considered an impediment. In other, desire—freedom!—sustains life. The fullness of living entails both.
Ai Weiwei accepts his situation with tremendous equanimity, yet never stops speaking the clearest truths about the state’s crimes and the price his people pay for them. He tells the interviewer he is not isolated, owing particularly to the internet. “Because it’s different if all that people know is that I can’t travel, and if they can actually see the flowers every day. Because so-called art is about the possibility of turning emotions into something that other people can understand. Otherwise it’s not art. Whether it’s looking at a beautiful fabric, or a pattern, that transmits emotion. The emotion may be 600 years old or 1,000 years old, but without the fabric we have no way to imagine what that feeling was.”
More and more, I come to see that entering fully into life—as social beings as well as individuals—entails a perpetual dance of balance. In one moment, I become aware of the workings of my own mind, consciously releasing myself from a constricting story that has taken root and blocked my view of what is; I relax into acceptance. In the next, I become aware of acts that destroy the lived experience of freedom in society, I find a way to speak out or act to change things. And then I do it all again. You too, hm?
If ever I wondered why I love the blues, my wondering is over. The late great Roy Buchanan “The Messiah Will Come Again,” a masterpiece of contradiction held in a work of art.