In a specific kind of meditation practice that's anything but a practice called Unprovoked Happiness, I encountered the suggestion to play with bubbles.
Unprovoked Happiness* is pretty cooky, and it's very simple. It's a non-practice of looking closely at anything, and getting absorbed in it. It's what kids are doing all the time. When they play with water, pick paint off a fence, or sing little ditties to themselves, they are actually having a pure conscious experience, which is one in which they aren't thinking, or aware at all, of themselves. Newborns do this too, or *are* this, as they stare at a fan or a light, or peer out at you, they are not separate, they are not registering a me and a you yet.
It's the same experience you can have at the beach or on a walk. You know those excellent vacations when time seems to go away, and a whole day goes by where no one is saying much of anything? Those are the moments in which the sense of self recedes, and no one is doing anything. This is in fancy terms zen mind: nobody there, everything functioning perfectly.
It's the very opposite of a world of becoming someone, which we all as kids in many respects have to go through, to learn to safely cross the street, communicate, be moderately clean. This kind of being is not a state of zoning out, but a state of being all there, out of the world of concepts, including time, personal identity, and self consciousness.
The recipe for a pure conscious experience is first of all, to be moderately relaxed. This can feel like a high bar at certain times. When there is a significant amount of stress, there's also a me that is stressed, a kind of basic contraction of a self under threat, and needing to do or undo something to feel safe.
Blowing a bubble is one easy avenue to invite enjoyment, a small dose of wonder, and a slowing the doer down a few notches. In the summer, it's fun to bring bubbles when I go out on a boat, watching them bounce on still water, wondering at how they do that.
You can also experience this kind of being when you do dishes or wash your hands, noticing the feel of the silky soap, the sound of the tiny relentless pops, how they all wash away just like that: a gleaming dish, wet hands, clinky sounds. Any sensory experience where there's a kind of basic delight, is this kind, and this is why it isn't a practice, because no one is there to do anything. When I say ‘ wow, I’m having a pure conscious experience’ that’s actually thought, and instead the next best thing.
The least real thing, when investigated, is thought, narrative, story, and the emotions that come with them. Thoughts and emotions will happen anyway, and only become painful when claimed as mine or my problem.
Anything you look closely at, even a pile of worms, an oil slick, a skittering empty beer can in the wind, a sock strewn just so across your floor, can be a doorway just like a bubble. Music you love, a strange sound, the taste and texture of foods, the sensory feel of motion, the way things pass by, the complexity of wood grain or water in basically any form or state, can all be regarded without the story, like a newborn sees them, before the world is chopped into labels and associations in reference to ‘me.'
Next time you're decluttering a closet and you encounter a bubble wand, stick it in your bag (tightly closed!) and bring it on a hike or to a gathering. Yes, you might look a little stupid, that is until you remember that you are much more than a self, and when you pause for a moment, it might just be delight that's there, with no one separate from it.
* check out this kooky website to get a good sense of it. I have not done exhaustiv searches, but if you're curious, this is a good starting point.
I recently was asked to say a few words on ‘art as meditation’ and meditation as art by my friend in the Pioneer Valley Abbie Wanamaker. Abbie was having a two person show and there was a forum that she asked me to speak at. I’ll share a few of the thoughts that came to mind as I considered her work and process, and the idea of art as meditation and meditation as art.
First, the word meditation in US culture has felt loaded with a sense of personal shortcoming and obligation for many, to the point that it may not be a useful word to use anymore. In a similar way, the idea of art practice has with it for many a sense of should, haven’t yet….maybe someday, soon.
Instead of meditation let’s talk about presence. That thing you were when you were born and still are, without any effort, prior to any self idea. That thing that sparks between you and a small woodland creature when you stumble upon one another and hold the other’s gaze. Presence is what we make room for in a process of deep play, prior to the part of our minds that narrate or decide the merit of what we are doing or what we might be making.
I enjoyed looking at Abbie’s paintings, their unapologetic, straightforward and vivid qualities. I think too about resonance, and I know that Abbie has resonated with my work and ideas for a while. I can see why: in the directness of her process, her statement and how she figures out what’s happening after the fact, letting the doing, the activity itself and the textures and qualities of the materials lead. This practice is presence too and similar to what happens in my studio when things roll naturally. I see in her work that Abbie values the doing over the thing that’s made, turning art practice into a form of attention.
Consider the difference between the governed idea of creative action and cultivating presence, and the direct experience of these things: what you already are: the situation, what’s happening inside and outside of this skin envelope we call a body: the temperature, the textures, sounds, tastes, motion, exchanges with people, animals, elements like sunlight and wind and sounds, intersection of elements that will never intersect quite the same way again. To me that’s deep play, creativity at its best, and contemplation all rolled up into one. It’s a sense of belonging, or inherent value, or naturalness, the way a dry leaf becomes the forest floor or a child is held in arms.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.