art, Looking For..., place

The Found Art of Hampi, India

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Hampi from the Tungabhadra River

A plain dotted with trees and scattered with boulders, Hampi in the Indian state, Karnataka, is a beautiful landscape. My recent visit there during the Diwali holiday allowed me to wander into India’s rural outback, and to laze against sun heated granite by the Tungabhadra River. During the 1500s, the Vijayanagar had a population of 500,000. The empire covered the entire southern portion of India, but Deccan Plateau sultans joined together and defeated the Vijayanagar army. The temples’ treasures were carried off as loot, much of the population was killed, and of those who weren’t killed, many fled. One of the world’s mightiest kingdoms fell to ruin, and gradually into obscurity.

Four hundred years later, Robert Sewell, a British civil servant stationed in India, wrote about the empire in his book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India. Much later, in 1986, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In addition to being a World Heritage site, Hampi is also a place of important religious significance for Hindus. As the stories describe, Hampi is the hill where Shiva, the god of destruction, did penance before marrying Pampa. After Shiva married, the gods poured gold onto the Heamakuta hill. According to the Hampi India website, Heamakuta, means heap of gold.

Hampi’s temples and ruins are spread over more than 10 square miles, or 25 square kilometers. There is much to see, and the carvings are fantastic. Though a place of enormous significance for many people on the subcontinent in the 1400 and 1500s, Hampi and the Vijayanagar empire are mostly unknown to people outside of India. As I walked along near the queen’s palace, I ran my hand along one of the carved walls. “My hands are touching history,” I thought to myself. “My hands touch what the ancients have touched, yet I understand so little.” Whether at a ruins of an ancient empire, or walking down the street of our hometown, our lives are enveloped in mysteries. We just don’t often recognize it.

After our day of exploration at the ruins, we went on a walk on the grounds near our hotel. We stepped across bamboo bridges stretching over the river, looped up across massive granite faces. Turning a corner, we tucked ourselves through a wooden door between leaning rock slabs. As we stepped inside, it seemed we had entered into a rock cathedral with windows of sky beaming through the stacked boulders. We continued climbing a short distance to an opening where we stood, at last, to view the valley spread before us in a 360 degree view. It was as if we had entered a secret door that enabled us to see the whole world. What a wonder it was, too–a plain filled with trees, and a river meandering through it with granite boulders balancing in precarious positions and leaning agains each other in dramatic angles. Nature like this is not a site often seen when living in one of the world’s mega cites like Delhi. We scanned our eyes across the landscape, fishing for greenery, for sky, for what we didn’t even know how to name. Our hearts simply opened to the world, and when we left the hilltop, we knew something inside us had shifted. We were lighter, and ,paradoxically, somehow more solid. Nature writer Barry Lopez says, “real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it.” This is because when beauty touches you, you slip into a place that is beyond rational thought and abstraction. The divisions between the physical and spiritual worlds collapse into one unified presence. That presence is far bigger than the mind can hold. You are humbled and made whole again.

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The beauty of Hampi’s temples is definitely worth traveling a long distance to see. The setting of the ruins themselves, though, is what sets Hampi apart from other locations. In this landscape, you can learn that everywhere is a temple if we have eyes to see it. To be there is to walk around in a colossal expanse of found sculpture, an installation art piece of gargantuan proportions, the origins prehistorical. Everywhere I looked, I saw art emerging from the earth.

The earth is in an ongoing creative act. If you listen, you can hear it speak through its myriad forms. The wind in palm trees chatters with stiff, clattering branches. Wind through bamboo scratches and cracks like arthritic bones. Wind through neem trees speaks with a restless, dry and fragile sound like crinkled onion skins. The earth tells its stories.

In my continuing desire to learn Spanish, I’m reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse book series in Spanish. Currently, I’m reading Una momia al amanecer, or in English, A Mummy at Daybreak. The children in the novel, Annie and Jack, learn how the Egyptians “tried to protect the body against death by preserving it for eternity.” (p. 45) Travel to the Vijayanagar empire’s ruins, however, assures the visitor that empires are temporary. All we have can be lost in a moment. Even stone wears away and topples. In Hindi, Vijay means victory. Victory, if found, is elsewhere, not in empires.

The final stanza of Louise Gluck’s poem “Summer Nights” reads,

Balm of summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived–
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?

Life is so dear, and life is full of both imperial joy as well as sorrow. You don’t seem to get one without getting the other too, at least that is what I’ve observed from living in India. Everything is being destroyed and made at the same time. Maybe that is, in part, why art is necessary. It reminds us that we participate in the creative act of life. Perhaps this is why temples have so much art. Religion means to rebind, and the creative act helps us to re-member–to put our selves together again.

Looking For...

Observations and a Meaningful Life

When I first started the exercise of purposeful noticing, a friend living in Singapore wrote me, wondering about the value of observing the same location repeatedly vs. seeking out new places and things. I have family members who return to Venice, Italy every year, never tiring of it, always seeing something new in the familiar. There’s something to be said for pushing your boundaries within confined parameters, and my friend’s comment reminded me of an exercise of Ann Berthoff’s, which had students observing an object for 10 days in a row and writing about it in their journals. Through this activity, the writers grew to know their chosen object in new ways while interacting with it–sometimes talking to it, sometimes analyzing it and breaking it down into its parts, other times imagining how the object might be used–each writer taking a different approach.

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Light Play–Patterns of the Afternoon’s Dappled Light on Front Steps

Berthoff, who was interested in the interaction between reading and writing, suggested that people make meaning as they read, and that language’s power comes through writer’s attempts to construct meaning while looking for patterns and explore the tensions in a text, both while reading and while writing. I recall the photo of splotches on a page in one of her books, Forming, Thinking, Writing, that when viewed, the brain translates into a Dalmatian. You can see how your brain does this for yourself here on this link. The recognition of a dog occurs because our brains search for patterns and connections. This wrestling with our confusion and making patterns out of it is actually what enables us to come to know what we know. Not only that, this shaping is a recursive process of naming and renaming, not a linear one with the goal of getting to the end product and then moving on.

From this foundational view point, we can understand that confusion is actually valuable. Confusion actually leads us into an interactive, exploratory composing process. When actively working with our confusion, we come to see how meaning is fluid, not static. We are wise, then, not to rush to conclusions, or be too quick to line up our points in an argument. It is our play with ideas, our extended experimentation and exploration, that is essential to deep thinking and understanding. We explore as we write, we think as we write, and through that, understanding grows. I believe this process actually holds true in many areas–whether exploring a question or a train of thought in science, or experimenting with materials in art. It is the extended play and continued exploration that expands our understanding of anything’s complexity, and that, in the end, can bring us back to a relationship with wonder.

Berthoff’s ideas resurface for me now as I reflect on the past nine days of purposeful noticing, and observe what is happening as I continue this practice. I’ve not been able to get out and see new places much, and have, therefore, needed to observe more closely things that are familiar, that I see every day, and try and give them focus through directed attention. As a result, I’ve found myself asking questions I’ve not thought of much or even at all. I’ve also noticed how observations lead to further observations and additional questions that I wasn’t planning on. Additionally, I’m beginning to more frequently see how the things I’m noticing can serve as metaphors.

Here are my observations, and a brief synopsis of what they’ve led me to think and wonder. (The previous observations are in previous blog posts.)

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Reflection–sky and trees

Day 5: Outside my apartment, birds caw in distinctive ways, as if in conversation. What does their conversation mean? I’m noticing the birds in the tree I see through the window. How the tree that has died and been cut off half way has caused birds to shift from one tree to another. When something is taken away, we find another place to rest.

Day 6: At the swimming pool: The thin line between the surface of the water and underneath the water–two worlds separated but containing each other. So beautiful, this fluid division of realities.

Day 7: At the pool: The wobbly hexagonal shapes the broken surface of water makes on the shallow floor of a pool. What causes this shape to occur?

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Reflections, Nehru Park, New Delhi

Day 8: Dragonflies. Yellow wings swarm and swirl by the hundreds above the trees outside my window. (Aren’t dragonflies viewed as good luck in Far East Asia?)

Day 9: Drooping collard greens in the window box. Leaves curling under, as if to hide  from the afternoon’s oven heat. What appears to be fragile, isn’t necessarily. But even plants have their limits as to how much heat they can tolerate.

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Reflection 3–sky, blossoms and trees

Day 10: The glistening leaves, toss white light as they blow outside the window. One brilliant pink flower, still and unmoved, beneath a harbor of vines.

Day 11: A layer of water spreads in thin pools across the stony green path. I walk across the sky and trees reflected there. Water allows stone to become mirror.

What are these observations? I don’t yet know, but surely many of the things I’ve listed here are metaphors for other things we experience in life. What do any our live’s observations bring? Our brains like to create patterns, as I said earlier. They want to make meaning. I want the whole of my life to be meaningful. Writing and seeing are ways into making meaning. They are tools for anyone who chooses to use and cultivate them, enabling us to wrestle with existence, and to find our place in the midst of the current of days flowing through us.

This belief about writing’s value leads me to wonder more of how, through writing, I can better help others find wrestle with and affirm their own questions, explorations, and discovery of meaning. Martin Seligman, talks about what makes a meaningful life. He has done research on what things actually allow people to have a more content, satisfying, whole life. There are three aspects: 1. a pleasant life–defined as experiences of positive emotion, 2. a life of engagement where time stops and you’re in the flow of what you’re doing, and 3. a meaningful life. He explains that the pleasant life, or the presence of positive emotion, is a largely hereditary and that these experiences habituate: Pleasurable experiences are great when you first experience them, but the thrill wears off fairly rapidly. A life that is satisfying is more than merely experiencing positive emotions. This is where the idea of “flow”, to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term, comes in. Flow, Seligman explains, is where you are totally connected to what you’re involved in and are experiencing. When you are in flow, time stops for you during that activity. The recipe for experiencing flow, Seligman says, is knowing what your highest character strengths are, and then reshaping your life so that you are connecting to and using these character strengths at work, at play, and in all you do.

Here is his site where you can take a character strengths quiz to help you identify these strengths. Alternatively, you could also take the character strengths survey on this site. Both sites have quizzes for young people as well. The VIA site, gives a variety of ideas for each character strength of what you might do to enhance that strength in your life. The experience of living meaningfully, Seligman says, can be expanded through knowing what your highest strengths are, and then using them to belong to or be in the service of something larger than yourself.

Here are some specific things Seligman suggests in his talk that his research shows people can do to enhance well-being in their lives: 1. Take the character strengths quiz  and then once you know your strengths, design a beautiful day that uses and enhances these character strengths. Use savoring and mindfulness to deepen and enrich the day’s experience. 2. Gratitude visit: Write a 300 word testimonial directed to a person that you never properly thanked but that did something enormously important that changed your life’s direction. Make an appointment to meet with that person face to face and read them what you wrote. The positive effects of this experience last for several months, his research shows. 3. Strengths date: couples (and I suggest why not friends, or even enemies as a way of creating understanding) identify their character strengths through taking the strengths test (available on Seligman’s site and at the VIA character strengths site.) Then the couple designs a date or an evening where they both use their strengths. This activity serves to strengthen the bond between the couple. 4. Fun vs. philanthropy: Doing something philanthropic gives a sense of inner contentment or well-being that lasts longer than doing something fun. Do something that helps, enriches, or enhances other people’s lives, and your sense of well-being increases. Through research, Seligman discovered that the pursuit of meaning, in addition to doing things that people find engaging and where they are experiencing flow, contribute to people’s lives at the highest levels of well-being. If you’re interested in Seligman’s ideas, I encourage you to read his book Flourish, where he gives additional specific ideas and suggestions about what enables people’s lives to flourish, and how his research at the University of Pennsylvania is exploring what factors contribute to and nourish a meaningful life.  (View Seligman’s TED talk here about these ideas.)

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Rock Crevice in the Afternoon: A hollow place.
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Going Inside a Stone: Rock Crevice at Night, under florescent light.

I began my purposeful observation with the intention of making some cracks in my busyness so that I might find ways to live more purposefully, intentionally, meaningfully. I’m finding the close observations of tiny things are leading me towards some bigger observations and questions. How can I more purposefully keep my aspirations alive? In the work I do each day, how can I continue to renew those aspirations as I apply the skills I have to meet other people’s needs? What I’ve been given and what I’ve nurtured, strengthened and learned, is to be shared. How can I keep that focus before me so life’s meaning continues to deepen? We look and we look again. We explore and play. Step by step, we grow towards understanding of what it is to walk on this earth.

What insights do you have into what deepens your life’s meaning?

Looking For..., Wonder

How To Be An Explorer of the World

You are an Explorer.

Your Mission: to document and observe the world around you as if you’ve never seen it before.  Take notes. Collect things you find on your travels. Document your findings. Notice patterns. Copy. Trace. Focus on one thing at a time. Record what you are drawn to.

1. Always be looking. (Notice the ground beneath your feet.)

2. Consider everything alive and animate.

3. Everything is interesting. Look closer.

4. Alter your course often.

5. Observe for long durations (and short ones).

6. Notice the stories going on around you.

7. Notice patterns. Notice connections.

8. Document your findings (field notes) in a variety of ways.

9. Incorporate indeterminancy.

10. Observe movement.

11. Create a personal dialogue with your environment. Talk to it.

12. Trace things back to their origins.

13. Use all of the senses in your investigations.

(The list here is taken from the book, How to Be an Explorer of the World, by Keri Smith, p. 5.)

Looking For...

2nd response to observations of things rain does

Reasons for Rain

Colliding beads. The soaring chunks and crawling legs

of rain. How the water jumps from the rooftop in a

cataract gallop, creeps in under the balcony door. How it

scuttles along the stone, leaps across the sky in thrums

and waves of thunderous hooves from herds of running beasts.

Winds blow across the plains of oceans where mountains

we do not see block the clouds and the rain falls. Monsoon, and

this is the way the world becomes: Drizzling darkness day after

day, rain rolling down. Mold covers cloth, grows inside

the grain of doors. Drop by drop, water rises. Roads turn to river.

Steadily, the rain clatters on plates of leaves, and I wonder, as I

lie between damp sheets in my bed, how did Noah feel, the beams

of his boat filled with must as he watched thunder clouds push against

the mountain of sky, drop by drop the roofs, the roads, the world he knew

covered over, dissolved, even though he understood the cause?

Looking For..., Uncategorized

Observation of an everyday activity that has an important impact:

Before Moving On

After working all day, we set out

down our driveway with the green arch

of trees reaching over the road. We pass through

redwoods, and glide under branches past

the narrow necklace of stream rolling down

banks of thick earth, then pull up to the main road

and stop. It’s a kind of ritual we go through

each time we come to the crossroad. I look back

up around the corner to the right, past the tall strands

of wild grass, trees and shrubs that have grown up there,

and are rarely trimmed back. I pause and peer

through the branches, twigs, and shadows, waiting

to see if a car, or bicyclist might come racing past.

And there we hesitate, like birds poised on

the edge of flight, lifting and cocking their heads

to gaze into the sky the moment before

raising their wings for the long trip south.

“Yes,” I might say, or, “Wait,” while a

slender-legged deer rounds the bend

and trots past. All our journeys, into town

or half way round the world hinge

on the trust inside those words.