It all started one night after getting totally engrossed in viewing Japanese woodblock prints, particularly the night scenes by Kawase Hasui. Hasui was one of Japan’s most prominent and prolific printmakers who died in 1957. He created landscapes that beautifully merged humans⎼ their homes, boats, shrines, castles, and temples⎼ into the land around them.
I was looking through several paintings and when one stood out, I’d wonder why that was so. I’d imagine myself in the depicted scene or sit with the mood the print and my seeing of the print created.
One night scene was of the Chuson-ji Temple, in the town of Hiraizumi, Japan. A long series of wide steps lead up through trees to the temple. There is moonlight and a bright star, but no moon. I allowed myself to slow down, stop rushing, and just linger on the scene, to sort of let my eyes feel the steps so I could walk up them and reach the building itself.
Then I’d close my eyes and let the scene rest inside me, before opening them again to allow whatever new details I had noticed to enter the picture. By touching in this mindful way, we are touched; we feel what we see. The artwork has more dimension. I learned this practice at a retreat organized by psychotherapist Lawrence Lesha, and by The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation, by Frederick Franck.
After doing this for a few hours, I drove into town to buy groceries. Along the way, the scenery took on a totally new quality. The homes surrounded by trees, the lights amidst the dark, the moon over the hillside⎼ one minute, the scene around me was the physical road and trees. The next, a beautiful portrait of the same.
A few days later, in the daytime, a similar experience occurred. As I walked up the rural road where I live, I saw as I might normally see⎼ light breaking through the hillside forest roof and bouncing off the leaves of the trees ⎼ and then as Hasui might paint it. By viewing the art, my eyes were tuned to beauty; I now had two sets of eyes, two ways of seeing.
Hasui seemed fascinated with how not just art was a creation, but vision itself. He was almost too prolific. He painted the same scene in different times of day and different seasons. There are at least three renditions of the Chuson-ji Temple, for example,⎼ one at night, one on a spring day, another in the snow. But what we see in each painting is one moment; we see each instant as a once-in-a-lifetime event.
We can see how everything changes or is change itself. Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, said: “Reality is flowing. This does not mean that everything moves, changes, and becomes; science and common experience tell us that. It means movement, becoming, change is everything there is, there is nothing else. There are no things that move and change and become; everything is movement, is change.”
The beautiful red temples Hasui painted were not just an external scene he perceived but an element of the artist, his history and mood, the time of day, the weather and quality of light, the remnants of the past in the present. We are not a being locked in a wall of skin, but one movement in a universe dancing itself into being.
Last night, I woke up for some reason at 4:45 am. I heard the clear voice of one lone bird calling from the yard outside the house. And then another joined in and another. The world was soon waking up with a symphony of sound. When I looked outside, the light was like mist. It was almost palpable, covering the windows like a film and enabling me to see what was unseeable in the dark. The canopy of trees had such a soft texture. And I realized how Hasui could have perceived the night forest scenes he created. Here, this moment, was a link to the reality, or a hint of what the artist himself might have felt.
Sometimes, we get caught up in what we see or hear. Our focus becomes almost possessive and exclusive. The object we see over there reinforces the sense of a separate me over here. Both isolated. And we lose appreciation for the very act of seeing or hearing, or the fact we can perceive, or know anything at all. We lose the mystery of it, the miracle. Studying how we perceive, being mindful, can remind us to notice, push aside what we see in order to enjoy the act of seeing. That we see can be as miraculous as what we see.
In my high school art or college art history classes, the teachers made clear to us the many benefits of these studies. Art can alert us, they said, to the inward subjectivity of other people, so we can feel we are not alone; art education can show us that what we see arises in a social context and through a collective history; that when we reach deeply into ourselves, we find others.
We need to remember all these benefits of the arts when we consider education budgets. Especially after a year and a half of a pandemic and four plus years of Trump anxiety disorder, we need the arts more than ever. But there will be pressure to continue the trend to sacrifice arts education; to do the “practical thing,” and emphasize or only teach STEM courses. That would be a mistake.
To sacrifice the arts is to proclaim our inner experience doesn’t matter. It is to say to our children that knowing the depths of ourselves and our communion with others doesn’t matter. However, it is never “practical” to diminish our understanding of who we are. We are already suffering so terribly from the diminishment of that understanding in too many of us.
The mindful study of the Hasui prints provided me an important lesson⎼ art can give us a diversity of eyes, ears, and ways of touching. Perception involves choice or a history of choices. It is not automatic. We train ourselves or are taught what to focus on or ignore, what steps we can walk, what actions are necessary to take. Each time we look at the world we can let it rest inside us, so when we open our eyes again the world grows larger.
As novelist Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but having new eyes.” Art can teach us not only to see more of the beauty in life; it can help us understand how we construct the world we perceive, so we can be more conscious of what world we are creating.
This post is republished on Medium.