Bringing a New Paradigm to life
an artist of possibility during difficult times
An article BY ariela cohen
an interview with Nicole bigar
an article by jeff carreira
dreaming of paradise found
a book review by amy edelstein
concerning the spiritual in art
a review of kandinsky's treatise by jeff carreira
an interview with nicole bigar
Recollections of Richard Rorty
An essay by George Collins
A book review of Jeffrey Kripal's The Flip
by Kathleen Andrews
A Drawing on Paradigm-Shifting
by Kathleen Andrews
A Piece by Robert Brown
The Evolutionary Wolf
A Piece by Daniela Piper
it requires a very
unusual mind to undertake
the analysis of the obvious.
–Alfred North Whitehead
recollections of richard rorty
An interview with Nicole Bigar
An interview with artist Nicole Bigar by Jeff Carreira
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concerning the spiritual in art
membership & calls for submission
Dreaming of Paradise Found
A book review of Thomas K. Shor's A Step Away From Paradise by Amy Edelstein
A Look Inside
the Possibility Issue
Concerning the Spiritual in Art
A review of Kandinsky's treatise by Jeff Carreira, excerpted from his upcoming book Higher Self Expression
an artist of possibility during difficult times
An article by Ariela Cohen
The editors can be reached by email at:
Cover image by
Alex Azabache, Unsplash.com
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the artist of possibility
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Welcome to the third issue of The Artist of Possibility. In this issue, we explore a theme which is the core of our mission - how can we expand what is possible? If reality is defined by what is possible, then how can we expand reality?
This issue reaches us during months of troubling times. Global Pandemic and racial tensions have created an atmosphere of social unrest filled with anger and fear on all sides. And, of course, this lands on top of threats like climate change and economic disparity, that were already creating so much insecurity for many of us.
Thomas Kuhn wrote a book in 1962 that was called, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he explains the mechanisms of paradigms. How they keep us locked in a certain worldview and why they are so resistant to change.
Kuhn identifies three factors that lead to a shift in paradigm, and one of them is the existence of longstanding persistent problems that we find ourselves unable to change. We find that it is simply not possible to solve these problems because the reality we live in is too small.
This issue is dedicated to the art of expanding the possibilities of reality. That means finding ways to shift how we perceive so we can see through our assumed limitations and recognize that more is possible than we had imagined.
Our own Ariela Cohen starts the issue off by sharing how she has learned to cope in these unsettling times. From there, we speak with Nicole Bigar to get an inside view on how artists contribute to new possibilities. We have a book review about the magic of Tibetan Buddhism and, in our members section - alongside several wonderful contributions to explore - we have a powerful piece on the 20th Century philosopher Richard Rorty by George Collins.
You can contact the editors here.
A Note from the Editors
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In the wondrous uncertainty of knowing
nothing, we can discover the awesome creative potential we have to author new realities.
— jeff Carreira
a note from the Editors
Don't miss our fourth issue, set to publish on October 15th 2020, where we will be exploring the magical power of fiction!
The Artist of Possibility is offered free of charge. Subscribe here to receive your quarterly copy:
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NEW ONLINE JOURNAL:
The Mystery School for a New Paradigm publishes an online journal containing articles, interviews, art and poetry that express and explain the emerging possibilities of a new paradigm.
In our pages, you will find information about the ideas, people and perspectives that are catalyzing new ways of seeing, feeling and acting in the world.
Each issue of The Artist of Possibility
will include the voices of some of today’s most respected paradigm shifting luminaries, as well as contributions offered by our members.
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“All you need is already within you, only you must approach your self with reverence and love. Self-condemnation and self-disgust are grievous errors. Your constant flight from pain and search for pleasure is a sign of love you bear for your self, all I plead with you is this: make love of your self perfect. Deny your self nothing — give yourself infinity and eternity and discover that you do not need them; you are beyond.”
— Nisargadatta Maharaj
This journal, and particularly this issue, is all about Artists of Possibility - those who are able to see beyond the veil of assumptions that make up this paradigm’s reality in order to peer into possibilities beyond. But what does an Artist of Possibility look like during more difficult times? As we all know, especially given the major challenges that we’ve had to face this year, life can get messy and the image of a Zen-like meditator who is able to stay calm and graceful throughout adversity may not always fit the bill. So, if you are anything like me and tend to berate yourself for not meeting the standards of this image, let me introduce a more comprehensive definition of what it means to be an Artist of Possibility. In this article, I would like to introduce my vision of what an Artist of Possibility is, while taking into account this incredibly beautiful - yet often challenging - experience that we call life.
I believe that an Artist of Possibility is, first and foremost, able to recognize and allow difficult emotional experiences to arise, without judgment. You see, without this capacity to allow ourselves to feel the emotional waves that life throws our way - and that are interwoven with strong patterns of mental conditioning - we would not be able to create any space for those waves to pass and for insights/understandings to arise. Just like the sun comes out to light-up the ocean after a storm, we also need to cultivate the capacity to hold - with compassion and tenderness - our inner storms, so that we can allow clarity to subsequently arise. This clarity can then allow us to access our innate creativity and reignite our inspiration for new possibilities.
Unfortunately, most of us tend to judge ourselves or others when painful emotional waves hit, getting lost in the torment of negative mental narratives that have been calcified over many years. Moreover, if we have experienced trauma in our past, these waves - and the mental stories that accompany them - can feel so intense that we fear we may drown. To be able to let such a storm pass requires an amount of courage and faith that is characteristic of an Artist of Possibility.
Such an Artist will face these storms, albeit imperfectly, in order to come out the other side with a renewed understanding of their ego’s mental patterns, a heightened capacity for affect tolerance, an increased compassion for the suffering of others, and a renewed faith in life and love.
For these reasons, it is my belief that an Artist of Possibility is the epitome of bravery. Sure, jumping off a plane is scary, but try sitting with your emotions when feeling submerged by an inner tsunami of pain!
It is important to remember that being an Artist of Possibility is not all glitz and glamour. An Artist of Possibility faces multiple inner battles alone, while holding steadfast to that whisper in their heart reminding them of their inherent belonging and interconnectedness with every element of the universe. An Artist of Possibility finds the humility and self-compassion to get to know their ego intimately, holding it with tenderness and care, so that it may gradually step aside to let Spirit lead the way. An Artist of Possibility is deeply human – they are vulnerable, messy, perfectly imperfect, and beautifully inspiring.
An Artist of Possibility is you - on your worst day and on your best day – whether you are pushing yourself to go for a walk during a particularly difficult day, or whether you are publishing your sixth book and just booked an interview with Oprah.
An Artist of Possibility is you, whether you have inspired one person throughout your life or have inspired millions.
An Artist of Possibility is you, whether you are blessed with small ripples of karmic habit, or struggle with tsunamis of inner turmoil.
An Artist of Possibility is you, with that sparkle in your eye, who experiences the same Knowing as I - the same call to trust and surrender.
So to all of you reading, I hope that you do not discount yourselves. This journal, and this issue, is for you. Be kind towards yourselves, always, so as to allow the storms to pass and to make space for the Artist in you to bloom.
An Artist of Possibility During Difficult Times
by Ariela Cohen
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An interview with
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In the following interview, I want to introduce you to my dear friend Nicole Bigar, who was part of a famous group of artists who pioneered the art style that would later be known as Abstract Expressionism. Creative circles like these occur periodically in human history and give birth to new ways of seeing and expressing reality. These extraordinary gatherings of genius have been an inspiration to me my whole life.
The first creative circle that inspired me was the largely literary circle of American Transcendentalists that gathered in the 1840’s and 50’s in and around Concord, Massachusetts. I have long been inspired by the profound contribution that this relatively small group of individuals made to the advancement of American culture. The central figure of American Transcendentalism was Ralph Waldo Emerson and other prominent members included: Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and a young Louisa May Alcott. The members of this group discussed, debated, argued, and supported each other financially, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually.
Another creative circle that emerged in America was the group of musicians that lived together in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles in the 1960’s and 70’s. Joni Mitchell, Carole King, The Mamas and the Papas, Jackson Brown,and the Eagles, are just a few of the musical talents that discovered a new sound in the Los Angeles’ suburbs and brought it to the world.
In East Hampton, NY, during the middle decades of the twentieth century, another famous circle of emergence developed; this time it was a group of painters. None of them were well known at the time, but many became revered names in the art world later including: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell. These painters were exploring spontaneous and free forms of artistic expression, using color to share the inner landscape of their feelings on canvas. Their paintings created a creative revolution that left an indelible mark on the world of art.
I first met Nicole Bigar eight years or so ago. She struck me as a sophisticated and lovely woman. I had known that she was an artist, but when I first went to her house and saw her works I was truly astounded. Her paintings are magnificent. The canvases were stacked against the walls, and as I flipped through them, I was touched by the beautiful and bold use of color and form. She spent some time pointing out some of the different periods she went through and explaining the themes that she was exploring.
As I learned more about Nicole’s life, I found out that she was part of one of the creative circles I most admired, the Abstract Expressionists of East Hampton, NY. I enjoyed speaking with her about that time in her life and learning about the free-spirited exchange of ideas and inspiration that was being shared. When we decided to dedicate an issue of The Artist of Possibility to The Expansion of the Possible, I knew that I would want to talk with Nicole to ask her about her experience with the Abstract Expressionist painters, and to explore her own relationship to art and what it means to her.
Jeff: Hello Nicole. Can you start by telling us how you came to be an artist and why you love art?
Nicole: When I came to America from France, I had never done any art before. But I went to a progressive school and an art teacher there opened me up to art, and I became fascinated with painting. Later on, after I was married, I took a drawing class and found out that it was connected to Victor D’Amico, who was the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I also found out that he was teaching people to paint at the museum. I joined Victor’s group and, later, I took classes at the Art Barge in East Hampton – an art institute that Victor had founded. The Art Barge was wonderful. We explored so many different experiences and learned numerous styles and techniques there. I think the painters who were working there, in the 60’s and 70’s, were mainly painting from their heart. There was a rhythm to their painting; they added color and one thing would lead to the next.
I would say that, for some of us, painting was like meditation. When you start a painting, you give yourself time to relax and empty your mind; and then you get into the swing and you let go. If you were angry, you could put it all on the canvas. If you were happy, you could celebrate that with very brilliant beautiful colors.
Jeff: How did all the painters who became known as Abstract Expressionists end up in the Hamptons?
Nicole: They were all living in New York, renting places there. They were all quite poor in the early days and didn’t become famous until much later on. They tended to hang out at Cedar Bar on the eastern edge of Greenwich Village. At one point, someone heard that you could rent a house in the Hamptons and convert it into a studio where you could work in nature for much less than the price of rent in the city. Many of them moved out to East Hampton.
Jeff: Who were some of the artists who moved out to the Hamptons?
Nicole: Well, there was Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. There was Saul Steinberg who was doing some drawings for the New Yorker, and Tony Rosenthal who was sculpting upside squares. Everyone was doing something unusual. I remember once de Kooning asked me if I wanted to know his secret, to which I answered, “Thank you, I have my own.”
At some point I started to explore a new way of painting. I would wait until I would feel a sudden urge to move, and I would listen to music and swing. It was a new way of painting that came directly from the heart. Still to this day, before I start a painting, I sit for a long time and empty my mind and wait until I feel the urge to move. And then I start, and the first color refers to the next one and as the colors keep coming, I look for the vibrancy between them. Sometimes it works and I get something wonderful, but not always. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and I just erase and start again.
I spent some time with Willem de Kooning and saw him paint. It was very beautiful. He had jars of color already prepared and, once he started, it was like watching a moving meditation. It was very beautiful.
Jeff: Were all of the painters around East Hampton aware that you were doing something radically different? Were you aware that you were doing a new kind of art?
Nicole: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think we cared.
Jeff: You were just in love with art and you were painting.
Nicole: No one ever expected to become famous.
Jeff: It sounds like you were exploring free and spontaneous expression – you weren’t doing representational painting, so you weren’t taking something that you had envisioned in your head and reproducing it on canvas – you were in a creative, flowing process. You were allowing yourself to be guided by the process itself.
Nicole: Yes, sometimes it was as though somebody was holding your hand, like a higher power.
Jeff :Who do you think is painting when that happens?
Nicole: A higher order. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it is very exciting.
Jeff:This is why people devote their life to art, for those times when you feel yourself being moved by something bigger than you.
Nicole: Yes. It’s very exciting.
Jeff: How long have you been painting?
Nicole: All my life, which has been a long life.
Jeff: And you’re still painting?
Jeff: Every day?
Jeff: You’re a true artist, compelled to paint every day.
Nicole: I need to. Yes. It’s what makes me happy. If I didn’t paint, I don’t know what I’d do. I would be very lonely.
Jeff: What do you think art brings to the world?
Nicole :In this very difficult world, I think art brings joy and happiness .This is one of the reasons why I paint. It’s a way of communicating. It’s an international language.
I finished this interview with one last question, “Please tell us Nicole, what makes you paint?” In response to that question, Nicole sent us the following poem called A Painter’s Journey.
A painter’s journey
by Nicole Bigar
What makes you paint
An urge to express the tilt of a tulip leaf
The Buddhas of Cambodia. The scent of Spring, Dancers in the fog, A love of color.
The pleasure of juxtaposing one color next to another and make them sing. Rhythm.
The Peace brings me to an abstract world
I dream of color
Painting makes me Happy. Fulfilled
As Now in quarantine it gives me life
As I studied with V D’Amico, I learned techniques to express myself into other expressions
I paint different subjects
I need to conquer an obstacle
Painting is another way to practice. Takes me to another sphere
Painting is my way to bring a smile, joy to my friends
Painting is a way to survive. Painting is my gift to the world
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A Book Review
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“You cannot make this world a Shangri-La. No improvement will ever get you there. To reach that state of happiness, you must let go of this world. 100 percent. Maybe it will soon be time again to attempt an opening [to Beyul Demoshong]. It is written in the ancient books that when the dharma is becoming lost, when there is nowhere else to run, the Great Door of the Secret Place will open. Times are getting rough.”
— Lama Tashi, Abbot of Simoling Monastery
When was the last time you came across a story that so totally captivated your imagination that you put aside doing anything else while you leaned in, nose in the spine, turning page after page and all the while travelling to lands far, far away? And more than a page-turner, a story that sparked your imagination and faith, your wonderings about the possibility of a real heaven on Earth? A story that questioned your conviction and willingness to go on a true quest for a grail that can be found, for a land that holds all the auspiciousness to become the center of a sacred effort to rebuild the world anew with wisdom and great Love? And what if that quest was not only real, but had been pursued in our own lifetime, and written about just a few short years ago?
I don’t quite know how I came across the book A Step Away from Paradise: The true story of a Tibetan Lama’s Journey to a Land of Immortality. It’s one of those serendipitous events where an article leads to a little research leads to a headline leads to a book, and that book opens up a world that touches threads I have long held dear.
I have always believed in and aspired to create heaven on Earth. I have always pondered the structures needed, from philosophical tenets of freedom to urban planning and biophilic design, to personal transformation and spiritual illumination. I have always loved to read about visionaries with burning eyes, bright with inner knowledge and an energy to bring about an exalted world we’d all want to live in. And my heart has always lifted when I think of the snow mountains of the Himalayas, those high and rugged sacred ranges, inhabited by yaks and leopards, yogis and cave dwellers, described in legend and myth. I spent over a year walking in the high mountains, valleys, and remote stretches around Langtang and Pokhara, Dhauladar and Almora, Zabarwan and Garwhal, Zanskar and Ladakh. I was always in search of great meditators enveloped in their practice, revealing the way to make the most out of this one precious birth, and a way to bring an enlightened context into the world we inhabit.
My own adventures are subject for another time. At the moment, I am compelled to share with you this extraordinary fairy tale of a real-world attempt to open the way to a sacred land that the Tibetans have long held aspirations for. This land is not forever locked within meditative visualizations, it is said to be tangible, physical, and accessible from the remotest reaches of Sikkim.
If you think this is the stuff that long tales by firelight are made of, that lead one fantastical event to the next, you are right. And yet, this account is not from hundreds or thousands of years ago. This story — so colorful and illustrative, Joseph Campbell would have thrown his head back in sheer delight had he been able to read it — has been researched, investigated, corroborated, and reported on; all with the modern convenience of air travel and internet. Thomas Shor is our author and guide. The larger-than-life mischievous and magical Tibetan yogi Tulshik Lingpa is our intrepid protagonist.
Tulshik Lingpa was, as is described in Tibetan Buddhism, a terton. He was not just an incarnated lama born with realization developed and perfected in previous lifetimes, but one who is able to find and release hidden spiritual scriptures. These treasures or ter are said to have been planted by the great master Padmasambhava, who lived in the 9th century and is credited for bringing the wisdom of the Buddha into Tibet. Now, ''hidden'' is not exactly what we would think. Not hidden like the Dead Sea Scrolls, in a long-forgotten jar buried under a rock on some mountain cliff. Hidden ter means invisible to the eye, often embedded in stone, in such a way that it can only be ''revealed'' by a terma. By one such as Tulshik Lingpa who has the good karma, the good fortune, preconditions, right intention, and the spiritual knowledge to be able to divine the location of these hidden sacred texts, make them appear, and then decipher their encoded wisdom. A few scratches on a stone once transcribed by a terton could become a 300-page text. The unbelievable part of this is that this terton and the ter Tulshik Lingpa uncovered is from our times. The great adventures described in this wild book took place in the autumn of 1962.
Tulshik was born in the early part of this century in Golok, eastern Tibet. The photos we have of him show a dashing young man. Lithe body and handsome face so delicate he seems androgynous, a feminine beauty in a masculine form. Like the deities painted in Tibetan tangkas, his captivating eyes speak of eternity and his mouth betrays laughter and power at the same time. As deep as he seems from his photos, the accounts from his son and a couple dozen others who knew him describe a ''wild man,'' who would ''say one thing and do another,'' who was not bound by convention and was ''crazy enough'' to dare to take a group of believers with him, up a high mountain pass, at risk of their lives, to attempt to open the way to this hidden, albeit manifest, holy land.
Thomas Shor takes us on a pilgrimage that is part investigative reporting, part historical validation and explanation, and part spiritual biography. He travels with Tulshik’s son Kunsung and grandson Wangchuk as translators, guides, and lucky charms — their presence authenticated the integrity of Shor’s mission and good intention to the interviewees. The desire of those intimate with the story to transmit their love and faith in Trulshik Lingpa’s attainment to his son and grandson colored every aspect of their memories with a wash of reverence and respect. And so, they freely shared their deepest convictions, their firsthand experiences, their hopes and harsh challenges, and also some of their most closely guarded secrets. This story, several years in the making, is a once in a lifetime opportunity; one that it seems Thomas Shor was destined to reveal.
The reading of the book is spellbinding. A fast-paced ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' and a profound peek behind the walls of hidden monasteries, we follow Tulshik Lingpa’s life and journey and the elements that brought him to his heralded attempt to open the doors to the mythical Beyul Demoshong. We see him as he heals lepers with pujas and prayers, and hold our breath as the king’s emissaries threaten his wellbeing. We learn about fantastical contortions he effects to protect secret meetings with sacred consorts, and shake our heads as he retires to live and meditate in a mountainside cliff dwelling with his wife and small children. A Step Away from Paradise delivers in spades all that could possibly be included in an authentic Tibetan quest for the holy grail.
I will not reveal what happens on his final quest, when he determined that although the signs were not perfectly right, that this was the day that they must attempt to climb up the mountain and open the door to this heaven on earth. Where they would climb above the treeline, into the snowline of the high mountain peaks, and walk into valleys fragrant with blossoming never-seen-before flowers and healing herbs. When they would step through that hidden door into a sacred land tucked away in the folds of the mountains, never to return to this side of the world again. I will leave you to go on this journey yourself, to accompany Trulshik Lingpa, and see what happens for yourself. Leave me to share that I just could not put the book down. It made me smile the whole while I was reading it. It blew on the embers of my own adventurous heart, my own willingness to leave everything and quest for a great revelation, one that could transform our troubled and harsh world into one that was guided by our higher human potentials. A Step Away from Paradise filled me with hope and faith, even as I wondered whether, in the end, one would have had to be from the same culture to have been able to accompany this mythical yet real, timeless yet contemporary pursuer of the greatest possibility for all beings — of opening up a door to heaven on Earth.
by Amy Edelstein
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the Spiritual in Art
by Jeff Carreira
Excerpted from his
forthcoming book Higher Self Expression
spiritual in art
In these troubled and challenging times of global pandemic and civil unrest, the artistic vision that Wassily Kandinsky first articulated- over a century ago - seems perfectly appropriate. Kandinsky studied economics and law in Moscow before moving to Germany to take up a career as an artist. From Germany, he moved to Paris and joined the ranks of the radical avant-garde there. Kandinsky is today recognized to be one of the most important of the abstract painters of the 20th century, on a par with Picasso and Matisse. In 1911, Kandinsky published a brief, but powerful treatise on the role that artists play in human development called Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
The treatise opens with a harsh critique of “the nightmare of materialism” that “holds the awakening soul still in its grip.” In Kandinsky’s opinion of his own time, “only a feeble light glimmers in a vast gulf of darkness.” Unfortunately, when the human soul encounters this flickering light of alternative possibility, it “trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality.”
During dark times like those he describes, the only thing most people want from art is a little relief. They want art to imitate nature through the use of easily recognizable conventions. And there are many works of art that meet this need and do indeed “feed the human soul.” This art performs a critical yet minimal function. “Such works of art at least preserve the soul from coarseness, they ‘key it up,’ so to speak, to a certain height, as a tuning-key the strings of a musical instrument.”
Kandinsky is describing here a function of art that we could attribute to normal art. The function of normal art is to anchor our senses to the highest possibilities that our existing culture has to offer. Normal art maintains a baseline and holds the human soul to it so that we do not lose ground already won. Presumably, without art playing this all-important conservative function, the human spirit would spiral downward into ever more crude and self-centered elements of itself. Still, Kandinsky explains, with this function alone “the possibilities of the influence of art are not exerted to their utmost.” The true potential of art to creatively bring about a new future cannot be realized with normal art alone.
But there is another function of art, a function that we could call revolutionary, that has a “powerful prophetic strength.” All of art is part of the spiritual life of humanity. And the spiritual life of humanity is a movement or development in human experience. It is a movement “upward and forward.” Art, in its revolutionary form, propels humanity’s spiritual journey; elevating and expanding the human spirit. In ages of darkness, most people will turn away from artists who express higher possibilities. They cannot see what the artist is pointing toward and cannot believe in it if they do. But the revolutionary artist cannot stop. They are compelled to express what they see is possible, regardless of whether anyone else sees it. Kandinsky is offering a wonderful and evocative description of what an artist of possibility is.
The treatise goes on to offer a model of the development of the human spirit. Kandinsky first likens our collective inner development to a triangle with its pointed peak turned upward. In that narrowest section, there are very few people, and often at the very tip, only one. These are the visionaries who see things that are possible yet remain invisible to the rest of humanity. “Even those who are nearest to (the visionary soul) in sympathy do not understand (them).” The history of human spiritual progress, Kandinsky tells us, involves leaps forward that are inevitably impeded by new obstacles that prevent further growth. “But there never fails to come to the rescue, some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision.”
The topmost visionaries at the peak of the human triangle are artists, but Kandinsky assures us that artists exist at every level of humanity. Throughout the entire triangle, along each horizontal line, there are artists. Each artist can see beyond the limits of the level that she was born into. Each one is compelled to strive upward, and many of those around them hunger for the spiritual food that their art can provide. The artist hears a voice that is inaudible to most and “almost unknowingly the artist follows the call.” That call is felt as a mysterious and “super-sensuous” stirring of the soul. During times of cultural darkness, when the higher possibilities of spirit have been reduced to only a thin and flickering light in the distance, art is the place where the new future will first reveal itself to those who have the eyes to see. “Literature, music and art are the first and most sensitive spheres in which this spiritual revolution makes itself felt.”
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Several weeks ago, following one of Jeff’s weekly videos in which he discussed the pragmatic philosophy of Richard Rorty (Week #102 from February 16, 2020 on “Obsession with Truth”), I sent him an appreciative email and mentioned that I had met Rorty on a number of occasions when I was a graduate student back in the mid-1980s. He asked me to summarize my recollections for the next issue of The Artist of Possibility, so here it goes.
Thirty-five years ago, I had the good fortune of studying English Literature at the graduate level at the University of Virginia, where I had also studied as an undergraduate. The UVA English Department enjoyed a national reputation and boasted a number of top scholars among its faculty, of whom one of the most celebrated was Richard Rorty - who had been lured away from Princeton following the 1979 publication of his groundbreaking work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. After a sabbatical year as one of the first recipients of a ''genius grant'' from the MacArthur Foundation, Rorty joined the UVA faculty in 1982 as the Kenan Professor of the Humanities, an inter-disciplinary appointment that well suited his wide-ranging intellect and interests. Although considered one of the leading philosophers of the late twentieth century, Rorty apparently felt more at home among literary types and so maintained his office at Wilson Hall, then the seat of the Department of English Literature.
Even as an undergrad in the early 1980s, I was aware of Rorty and his ''rock star'' reputation in the academy, but I had no occasion to meet him or study with him at that time – I was busy taking survey courses and fulfilling various area requirements to complete my English major, and a scholar of Rorty’s stature was not exactly teaching sections of Freshman Comp. However, when I returned to UVA to pursue my M.A. in the mid-1980s, I had numerous occasions to meet him. As a graduate student, I was permitted to use the faculty lounge - a comfortable refuge of bottomless coffee machines and overflowing bookshelves and tatty upholstered furniture, where faculty and graduate students alike would gather to gossip and get caffeinated before their next round of teaching, reading or writing.
During these years, I met Rorty several times in the faculty lounge or in the vestibule just outside the entrance, where he always greeted me with a smile and a friendly nod. Of course, he had no idea who I was (my area of focus was Romantic and Modern English Poetry, and so I never took any classes with him – to my everlasting regret), but I recall him always being extremely affable and gracious. Still, as a young grad student and intimated by his scholarly reputation – what could I possibly say that would be of interest to the greatest philosopher of our time? – I never mustered the courage to say more than a nervous “Hello” in response to his sincere greetings. Again, one of my major regrets from that phase of my life.
Although my own direct interaction with Rorty was thus limited by my poetry-oriented curriculum and personal insecurity, my more substantial interaction with the man and his thought came indirectly via his many grad students. In those days, it was customary for graduate students in the humanities to meet on Thursday evenings at The Court Square Tavern, a quiet and extremely civilized watering hole in historic downtown Charlottesville, far removed from the boisterous student bars closer to the university grounds. There, in a cozy atmosphere reminiscent of an English private club, groups of budding scholars would sit at polished wooden tables and pontificate while sampling the more than 100 types of beer imported from all around the world – this was considered quite exotic at the time!
I was a regular at these Thursday evening sessions, where I came to know many of my fellow grad students, not only from the English Department but also Philosophy and Religious Studies, and other liberal arts disciplines as well. Our conversations were always wide-ranging, as you may imagine, sometimes little more than petty speculating about departmental intrigues or venting our frustration with a stalled dissertation or difficult faculty advisor, but from time to time we would also discuss matters of substance. At these gatherings, I met several grad students who had come to UVA specifically to study with Rorty, some even hailing from overseas. Whenever the conversation turned to Rorty, as it occasionally did, various questions from among his acolytes would be tabled and then get bandied about by the wider group: Was his best work behind him? Was he “selling out” by starting to write pieces for mainstream publications rather than focusing on rigorously argued articles for the professional philosophy journals? Was he getting a bit too comfortable in his emerging role as a public intellectual? And what’s up with his forays into literary criticism and political theory?
Around the table sat traditionalists, relativists, modernists, post-modernists, existentialists, deconstructionists, structuralists, post-structuralists, Freudians, Jungians, Marxists, and all schools of thought in between and far beyond, and debates about Rorty’s pragmatic philosophy – which held that no belief is more fundamental than any other, and that philosophy therefore cannot establish anything and should be best understood as an ongoing conversation with the same sort of claim to finality as cultural and literary criticism – often raged late into the night. Is Rorty saying that there’s no difference between Hitler and Mother Theresa? How can Rorty deny the existence of objective reality when it’s staring you right in the face? Isn’t truth more than just description and language, as Rorty asserts – does saying that black is white necessarily make it so? And so on and so forth, late into the night, in these somewhat more rarefied versions of a freshman dorm room bull session. No conclusions were ever reached for these questions (how could they be?), and strong opinions were often voiced by all sides on any particular issue, but I remember these Thursday evening debates as exciting and stimulating and lots of fun.
As I was familiar with Rorty’s academic reputation but unfamiliar with his actual work, I wisely kept my mouth shut during these occasionally heated discussions. However, inspired by the passion and wildly differing points of view expressed by Rorty’s students (and their interlocutors), and intrigued by their abstruse arguments over his subtle philosophical ideas (which were way over my head, especially after a few heavy Belgian beers), I decided to read his books for myself and form my own opinion. So I purchased Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature at the UVA bookstore and dove in.
To say that I almost drowned would be an understatement. While I could intellectually grasp a rough outline of Rorty’s central argument – that the mind should not be considered as a mirror to reflect an objective reality “out there” that exists separate from ourselves, with the role of philosophy being to keep the mirror well-polished – I lacked the necessary grounding in twentieth century philosophy to fully absorb and appreciate his sustained critique of modern analytic thought or to understand what he was proposing in its place. Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Quine, Sellars, et al. were names vaguely familiar to me but I was woefully ignorant of their actual work, as I was similarly familiar with academic concepts such as epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language (psycholinguistics), and philosophy of science but was in no position to explain coherently the sophisticated ideas elucidated by these disparate branches of modern philosophy. Somewhat overwhelmed by the subtle nuances and deep complexity of Rorty’s arguments, however clearly and forcefully expressed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, I retreated to the enchanting, inviting verses of Keats and Yeats, which to this English major were much more congenial!
A few years later, however, still in grad school at UVA but having switched lanes from literature to law after earning my M.A., I decided to give Rorty another attempt by reading a slim volume published in 1989, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Although I was no longer a denizen of the Thursday evening grad student gatherings at The Court Square Tavern (law students had a regular Thursday evening gathering of their own, cheekily called “Bar Review”), I was still in touch with several of my grad student friends from Wilson Hall, many of whom were now completing their dissertations and receiving their hard-earned doctorates. Encouraged by their enthusiastic recommendations of Rorty’s newest treatise, I made yet another another trip to the UVA bookstore.
I found Contingency altogether more approachable, not least because Rorty drew on sources far beyond academic philosophy but also cited the work of writers and thinkers such as Nietzsche, Nabokov, Freud, Dickens, and Orwell, among many other poets and creatives with whom I was much more familiar. It is difficult to summarize this beautiful and thought-provoking (and quite provocative) little book, but its essence seems to boil down to the argument: 1) that we must see society as a succession of historical contingencies; 2) that an ironic perspective on the human condition is valuable on the private level for dealing with these contingencies; 3) and that, on the public level, we should look to the insights of great literature - and not philosophy - for guidance on the grand historical project of promoting human solidarity and eliminating cruelty and injustice in the world. As a litterateur and not a philosopher myself, I found this conclusion most gratifying.
Although I still struggled with many aspects of Rorty’s thought (certain themes remained elusive to my understanding, and I resisted a few of the bits I believed I understood), Contingency nevertheless championed important real-world goals that I could support, and also suggested practical ways to incorporate specific ideas into my belief system and apply them to daily life – which for me was, and remains, the primary goal of any meaningful or serious study of philosophy.
There is a postscript, of sorts. A decade on, I was living in Prague and pursuing a career in business but still keenly interested in literature, philosophy and spiritual issues. By that time, Rorty himself had moved from UVA to Stanford, where, completing his own evolution from iconoclastic philosopher to literary and cultural critic and budding political theorist, he had accepted in 1997 an appointment as, significantly, a Professor of Comparative Literature.
At the top of my reading list for 2001 was the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. By coincidence, Menand had previously taught at one of my almae matres, the UVA School of Law (although, unlike with Rorty at the English Department, I never met him there), and I had been a big fan of his elegant prose and deeply insightful work ever since he started writing essays for The New Yorker in 1991.
I fully expectedThe Metaphysical Club to be absorbing and entertaining, which of course it was, but I had no idea how this highly accessible but weighty tome would enable me to tie together various threads of thought through its masterful portraits of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey - four disparate thinkers who concurrently (though not necessarily in cooperation) developed a distinctly American school of pragmatic philosophy. By becoming more familiar with these great American philosophers and their intellectual milieu, and the historical and cultural circumstances that engendered their thought, I had a light-bulb moment and was finally able not only to ground myself in the rich and varied sources of the pragmatist tradition, but from this deep place, to connect the dots and trace an arc to the more mature and comprehensive philosophy that Rorty was continuing to develop and refine one hundred years later. In short, Menand’s opus provided a necessary contextual background that had been previously lacking in my futile attempts to grasp the subtleties and appreciate the profound implications of Rorty’s revised and expanded version of modern pragmatist thought.
As I closed the covers ofThe Metaphysical Club back in 2001, I couldn’t help thinking, “If only I’d had this book twenty years ago, before struggling through Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and feeling like a moron and a failure, I might have understood Rorty right off the bat and saved myself a lot of intellectual frustration and confusion!” But that’s all part of the journey, isn’t it?
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of Richard Rorty
by George Collins
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Jeffrey Kripal’s newest book, The Flip, has solidified both my respect and enthusiasm for this Rice University religion professor. By using concise logic, careful reason, solid scientific research, and a fascinatingly diverse and intriguing range of experience, he continues to bravely insist that our view of reality include what we learn from anomalous states of consciousness. As Kripal writes in his introduction, this book is many things, including a report on the state of knowledge about the nature of mind and its relationship to matter.
What is this flip that Jeffrey Kripal speaks of? It’s a reversal of perspective that even committed, well-trained intellectuals experience when they suddenly realize they are not an object, but a subject. In this book, Kripal shares a few of the hundreds of examples he had collected of this perspective turnaround. One example is that of Srinavasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) who “attributed his mathematical discoveries not to any simple cognition or problem solving, but to his family deity, the goddess Namagiri of Namakaal, who would write formulas on his tongue and bestow mathematical intuitions in his dreams.” The way Ramanujan’s mathematical discoveries came to him - in his imagination - clearly doesn’t fit into our current materialistic model. We look at imagination as an expression of the unconscious, yet we lack a theory of what is doing the projecting of this unconscious story. Since this question is difficult to study with science alone, Kripal asks, “Can we build a model that explains both our ordinary and our super-selves?”
Jeffrey Kripal hopes that this book will initiate a deeper conversation between scientists and humanists, and argues for the centrality of the humanities in the discussion. Surely, a meaningful model of reality would include both what scientists and humanists have to say? Neither succeeds alone. Interestingly, Kripal does not argue for one absolute, but for taking a third path: Since no story alone can speak for all earthly or cosmic life, one can choose to live in a particular story (i.e., scientific or sacred) depending on what one wants to do well.
One of the outcomes that Kripal hopes for is an acceptance that uncertainty and indeterminacy are woven into the very nature of things. Kripal reminds us that both scientists and sages have spoken of indeterminacy, including Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr. Legendary Chinese Buddhist monk and poet Han Shan also speaks of such things by describing her experience of the simultaneous existence and non-existence of space and time: “As one suddenly comes out of darkness, I perceived the full meaning of immutability and said: ‘Now I can believe that fundamentally all things neither come nor go.’ I got up from my meditation bed, prostrated myself before the Buddha shrine and did not have the perception of anything in motion. I lifted the blind and stood in front of the stone steps. Suddenly the wind blew through the trees in the courtyard, and the air was filled with flying leaves which, however, looked motionless… When I went to the back yard to make water, the urine seemed not to be running. I said: ‘That is why the river pours but does not flow.’ Thereafter my doubts about birth and death vanished.”
Among the concepts Kripal focuses on in this book is the importance of recognizing the difference between the subjective or ‘inside’ of reality that mystical experience gives insights to, and the objective ‘outside’ of things that our senses and scientific equipment usually tell us about. Neither the humanities nor the sciences has the full picture.
In The Flip, Jeffrey Kripal also joins other thinkers in arguing for a philosophy of mind that understands consciousness as both primary, and more importantly, prior to brain function. Indeed, Kripal encourages readers to use the tool of personal experience to look at consciousness. For example, in Chapter 4, Kripal presents a partial list of experiences of collapse between mind and matter, or 'inside' and 'outside', including mystical experiences of light and the simultaneous existence and non-existence of space and time - as suggested by the ‘block universe’ hypothesis of modern cosmology.
Like so many people, I have had mystical experiences of the warping of space and time, such as the one described by Han Shan, and of light, such as those described by Kripal. While reading The Flip, I took note for the first time of the interior experience of light that I have had all my life between waking and sleeping. I have seen, and still see, wisps of light against a black background, pulsing slowly towards me, from a source in the middle of whatever inward place it is that I see. As I read the book for the first time, I wondered if there was something to be gained by paying closer attention to these interior experiences of light. How I attended to it altered my experience; I experienced the wisps of light being blown away as if by a breeze, exposing the top of a metallic-colored sphere faced with hexagons. Like Han Shan’s water that is both moving and not moving, I both do and don’t experience interior light. I don’t yet know what to make of these interior experiences, but I am much more comfortable with that ambiguity.
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by Kathleen Andrews
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A Drawing On Paradigm-Shifting
by Kathleen Andrews
Eventful Horizon shows the human life cycle: Birth (golden egg of Brahma), Life (active hands - Vishnu) and Death (black hole - Shiva). The creator of the painting is shown in an insert painting and rendered in reverse colours to reality. The creator is transcendent to the creation yet is involved in creating every part of the image. (24"x30" Oil)
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by Robert Brown
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The Evolutionary Wolf
by Daniela Piper
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