In the current “Love” issue of Parabola, I interview David Rome, a senior fellow at the Garrison Institute who served as the personal secretary of the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche for nine years. Rome even took down the poetry that Trungpa spontaneously dictated and worked with him to edit it. This proved to be a perfect preparation for Rome’s later work with a meditative technique called “focusing,” which aims to guide people back to the “felt sense.” Rome describes the felt sense as the usually subtle experience of being in a body in a particular situation–it is knowing about your life in a bodily way. (Sometimes it isn’t so subtle, when a chill goes up your spine). This state of bodily presence that exists before experience gets filtered into words and defined emotions is where poetry and other forms of art come from–the stuff that isn’t mere contrivance and imitation. It is also the wellspring of symbols, myths, and the religious impulse.
In the past few weeks, since I’ve seen the movie Avatar, I’ve been reflecting on how mindfulness meditation and even childhood fantasy games (I was a jungle girl) can be like traveling back in time–not just in our individual lives, to a time of innocence, but back to a time when there was no hard and fast separation between art and religion. Eugene Gendlin, the University of Chicago philosopher and psychologist who developed focusing once said that the felt body is “part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people, in fact the whole universe. This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the body as it is felt from the inside.”
It can feel this way to sit down on a cushion and meditate. Returning to the sensation of being present can open us up again to the primordial mystery of life–and so can good poetry and art. It leads us beyond what is present to the sublime. In the old days, in days of the great cave paintings in Lascaux, there was no separation between religious and the artistic impulse. These days, however, art that is deemed good by the art establishment isn’t supposed to have anything to do with the spiritual. Yet sometimes the twin impulses can’t be denied. In an article about the painter Agnes Martin, Joanna Weber writes: “In 1764, Kant wrote ‘The sublime moves, the beautiful charms. The sublime must be simple; the beautiful can be adorned and ornamental.'” Martin’s work is simple and sublime. In her own description: “a work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present–at the slightest hint…the work is alive. The life of the work depends on the observer, according to his own awareness of perfection and inspiration.”
I find in my own life that this felt sense is usually completely drowned out by thought–or else I’m not aware of it until there is a big explosion of anger or fear. Yet I know there is something in me besides ego and mindless habit, something that yearns to be part of something bigger than my own piddling interests and subjectivity. How to make a practice of this? Drop everything the mind happens to be grasping. Sink down under all the layers of care and views and languages, be with the prehistoric one who knows what is right here right now.