A Class of Birds

During the last few years of his life, I paid many visits to William Segal, the painter, philosopher, and publisher.  He was the subject of a series of films by Ken Burns, which aired on PBS this past weekend, and along with Burns I regard him as a great teacher.  Segal embodied the possibility of living an extraordinary double life.  In addition to publishin innovative magazines, promoting trade with Japan after WWII, being a connoisseur of art, wine, fashion and life, Segal was a true seeker of truth–first as a student of P.D. Ouspensky and G.I. Gurdjieff and, later, D.T. Suzuki, who wrote Segal letters of introduction that allowed him to be the first American to sit in Zen monasteries in Japan right after the war.   I used to sit with Segal in his Upper East Side apartment, mindful that I sat at the table where Suzuki often sat,  and so many others.   Although I got to know him well in the last years of his long life, he still conveyed an inner stillness and light:  “Bill was a man of many layers and if the outer layer was the man of today, the innermost core was an opening to eternity, ” the great theater director Peter Brook wrote of him.

Segal often told me he admired the Zen ideal of the “old man in the marketplace” — conveying by his quiet presence an opening to the true beauty and wonder of the whole of life that is hidden within seemingly ordinary things.   Before he died at 96, he had become that old man, trailing stillness and wonderment in his slow and deliberate wake.

I find myself thinking of Segal now because of an experience I had last Friday evening.   I drove down to the art opening “A Class of Birds” at the Sears-Peyton gallery in Chelsea, with the usual mix of happy anticipation and social anxiety.  As I’ve written here before, I was very moved by one of Rosen’s hawk sculptures, and I looked forward to seeing more.  Yet there was traffic to drive through and it turned out that many galleries between 24th and 25th Street and 11th Avenue were having openings that night. People poured out into the streets, clustered in groups talking about huge prices, about bright new things.  I entered the Sears Peyton Gallery feeling overwhelmed, wondering if I should have slipped in another day.

Then I came to a full stop.   Jane Rosen’s birds made my heart ache, literally, and stilled all my gnat-like worries and fears.  I stood before them as I sat before William Segal.  These glass birds had a presence.   They brought something wild and fine and utterly unworldly to the gallery, which was  wisely spare.  Since I don’t have to write like a sophisticated art critic, I can just come right out and say it:  I had the impression that Jane had been used by the force that created and animated real hawks–that the wild spirit of nature had come through her.   The sense of eternity that comes to us in nature was in the presence of these birds.   Art can be a way.

Later, I had a chance to tell Jane my impression.   “You feel them in you heart? For me, I think it’s bit lower,” she said, placing a hand on her solar plexus.  She admitted to a group of us that she had the sense  that her birds were alive.  Although she was that crazy about being away from her California ranch, she had the feeling that the birds would be able to hold their own, that she didn’t need to explain them and hover near.  She is right.

One impression that especially surprised and touched me is the way the monk birds looked from the back–slightly bowed like Buddhists monks, in contrast to their proud hawk fronts.  It was as if there were making a deliberate effort to be who they were, and as if they had for a long, long time.   It was like the Buddha touching the earth, bearing witness to the lifetimes of effort that had earned him the right to be free.  But the bowed backs were also humble, like true monks and animals are humble.  It filled me with an unaccountable feeling of homesickness.  I remembered that C.S. Lewis had described such a feeling in nature, coming upon some grove or clearing that was ordinary, but wabi-sabi ordinary, William Segal ordinary–that had a glow about it from another world.   I wondered if that was what the monk birds had to teach,  that there are two sides to effort, noble wildness and humility.  Perhaps it is this that attracts grace.

“A Class of Birds” is at the Sears Peyton Gallery from September 10-October 30, 2010.

24 thoughts on “A Class of Birds

  1. thank you tracy. there is a quote that explains the two sides of the monk birds. their dual nature….
    from the mundaka upanishads….
    “like two golden birds in the self same tree, the ego and the Self dwell in the same body. while the former eats the sweet and sour fruits of the tree of life, the latter looks on in detachment…”

    1. so beautiful, Jane…..still one of the most beautiful things to hear….can’t wait to see the show when I am on the east coast early October. And thanks to Tracy Cochran for relating her experience with Jane’s work.

    2. yes, one has to make has to make efforts and the other is always beyond effort, beyond what we can grasp or know.

      thank you, jane.

    3. Depends on what is understood by the word detachment. For the Self (Attention, Presence) even though it is not sucked in by the so called ego there is a connection, the ego is seen as being what is an of what matter it is composed and even the field of its operation.
      Seeing in itself is an act, one that makes a difference in how we live and are. Ordinarily people take attachment to mean no connnection, not caring, unconcerned. If this is the case what would be the point of the higher being informed by the manifestations of the lower?

      1. I think of detachment as it is used here as impartial, all-embracing like the sun, which shines on all and everything.

  2. what a momentous keepsake to carry in your heart…if your writing/art space is anything like mine…i have the luxury of quiet, with the exception of sweetly singing birds fluttering about doing their bird life.
    what a talent Jane was able to share and inspire us with through your experience. my personal gratitude goes out to you for reminding me the gifts of nature are irreplaceable. I will cherish them a little bit more…
    much love and respect, ash

  3. Hi Everyone,

    Thank you all for such a lovely conversation and thank you Tracy for introducing us to the lovely art of Jane Rosen.

    There is a sacramental element of stillness that arises out of all your work Jane, or so it seems to me, but one that touches on life and calls out to life specifically.

    And yes, it is very visceral at times, touching us in the core of the self. It does make you feel homesick, as if some piece of home or of yourself is missing. If I could name it, I would name it the spirit of wildness. Most of us live lives that are far to civilized and removed from nature.

    In some ways it is like the call of cicadas in summer time, there is a primal wildness in their singing that vibrates all through the soul. I can hear them in the evening, sitting on my front porch, or even late at night after going to bed.

    The trick there of course is to listen, we’ve trained ourselves to tune out so many of the sounds that surround us. Jane’s work is a reminder to lift up our ears, like her Fox Girl, and to listen again to life calling out to life.


  4. Hi Tracy

    Would you say that this following excerpt from Jacob Needleman’s book “Lost Christianity” fits into the duality of the functions of the birds as has been explained?

    Does the soul as described here exist for Buddhism?

    “The principal power of the soul, which defines its real nature, is a gathered attention that is directed simultaneously toward the spirit and the body. This is attention of the heart, and this is the principal mediating, harmonizing power of the soul. The mediating attention of the heart is spontaneously activated in the state of profound self-questioning. God can only speak to the soul, Father Sylvan writes, and only when the soul exists. But the soul of man only exists for a moment, as long as it takes for the question to appear and disappear.”

    1. Excuse me for jumping in here please. It seems like we get into a language and conceptualization exercise here when speaking of the soul.

      There are are these different words for soul across cultures, history, and religions. Psyche, Soul, Spirit, Mind, Self, to mention just a few. In Christianity people believe that they are created in the Image of God, and in the Gospel of John it is written that God is Love. It is also written that we should worship the Father (God), in Spirit and Truth, for God is Spirit and Truth.

      The word “soul” may be misleading at times, because it implies an object possessed, whereas Self (as in Me, Myself, and I) signifies the subject which perceives all objects. Do we possess a soul? What is it that gives us human intelligence and human consciousness, what makes us self aware.

      A Buddhist may tell you that a human being has no permanent self, simply because the self is constantly changing from one moment to the next. You could even say that the self is arising out each moment and out of the relationship we have with others and creation. It all makes sense. So, is it our relationships that grant us our sense of self, our sense of a soul; I think they do.

      Personally, I think, believe, and even know at some level, that there is something more, something beyond the self that is typing these words and who will soon be heading off to work in an office building in downtown Houston.

      It is this something more that I would dare to call a soul, a spirit, even a mind; it’s all one, it’s all interconnected. It’s all Interbeing (Thich Nhat Hahn’s idea of Emptiness), dependent origination or arising, and that God is best understood as the “Ground of Being or Interbeing.”

      I know that I love the language of the soul as used in these verses of scripture.

      “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

      “And the LORD God formed man [of] the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (Genesis 2:7).

      “And so it is written, the first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:45).

      Then there is the Hebrew word for soul or life, Nephesh, which has many meanings. Soul, Being, Life

    2. Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, G.I. Gurdjieff:

      “According to the fantastic branch of this theory of their ‘science,’ now called spiritualism, they suppose among other things that each of them already has a higher being-part or, as they call it, a soul, and that a transmigration must be occurring the whole time to this soul, i.e., something of the kind of this same ‘Okipkhalevnian exchange’ of which I have just spoken. “Of course, if these unfortunates would only take into consideration that according to the second-grade cosmic law called ‘Tenikdoa’ or ‘law of gravity,’ this same being part— if in rare cases it does happen that it arises in them—instantly rises after the first Rascooarno of the being, or, as they express it, after the death of the being, from the surface of their planet; and if they understood that the explanations and proofs, given by this branch of their ‘science,’ of all sorts of phenomena which proceed as it were among them there thanks to those fantastic souls of theirs, were only the fruits of their idle fancy—then they would already realize that everything else proved by this science of theirs is also nothing else but Mullah Nassr Eddin’s ‘twaddle.’

      And thus, every man, if he is just an ordinary man, that is, one who has never consciously “worked on himself,” has two worlds; and if he has worked on himself, and has become a so to say “candidate for another life,” he has even three worlds. In spite of the fact that everyone, without exception, will certainly think that I have gone completely mad when they read the above statement, I shall nevertheless go on to develop the logical consequences of this ultra-extravagant notion. If you really want to know the truth, I will tell you how matters stand, and why I pronounced such an absurdity. First of all, it must be said that in the outpourings of various occultists and other will-less parasites, when they discuss spiritual questions, not everything is entirely wrong. What they call the “soul” does really exist, but not everybody necessarily has one. A soul is not born with man and can neither unfold nor take form in him so long as his body is not fully developed. It is a luxury that can only appear and attain completion in the period of “responsible age,” that is to say, in a man’s maturity. The soul, like the physical body, is also matter—only, it consists of “finer” matter. The matter from which the soul is formed and from which it later nourishes and perfects itself is, in general, elaborated during the processes that take place between the two essential forces upon which the entire Universe is founded. The matter in which the soul is coated can be produced exclusively by the action of these two forces, which are called “good” and “evil” by ancient science, or “affirmation” and “negation,” while contemporary science calls them “attraction” and “repulsion.” In the common presence of a man, these two forces have their source in two of the totalities of general psychic functioning, which have already been mentioned.

      … during my studies of the fundamental cosmic laws, I learned that these sacred substances Abrustdonis and Helkdonis are just those substances by which the higher being-bodies of three-brained beings, namely, the body Kesdjan and the body of the Soul, are in general formed and perfected; and when I learned that the separation of the sacred Askokin from the said sacred substances proceeds in general when the beings on whatever planet it might be transubstantiate the sacred substances Abrustdonis and Helkdonis in themselves for the forming and perfecting of their higher bodies, by means of conscious labors and intentional sufferings.

      View From the Real World, Gurdjieff’s Talks

      Gurdjieff: A soul is a luxury. No one has yet been born with a fully developed soul. Before we can speak of reincarnation, we must know what kind of man we are speaking about, what kind of soul and what kind of reincarnation. A soul may disintegrate immediately after death, or it may do so after a certain time. For example, a soul may be crystallized within the limits of the earth and may remain there, yet not be crystallized for the sun.

      There is no master in ordinary man. And if there is no master, there is no soul.

      A soul—this is the aim of all religions, of all schools. It is only an aim, a possibility; it is not a fact.

      Ordinary man has no soul and no will. What is usually called will is merely the resultant of desires. If a man has a desire and at the same time there arises a contrary desire, that is, an unwillingness of greater strength than the first, the second will check the first and extinguish it. This is what in ordinary language is called will.

      A child is never born with a soul. A soul can be acquired only in the course of life. Even then it is a great luxury and only for a few. Most people live all their lives without a soul, without a master, and for ordinary life a soul is quite unnecessary.

      But a soul cannot be born from nothing. Everything is material and so is the soul, only it consists of very fine matter. Consequently, in order to acquire a soul, it is first of all necessary to have the corresponding matter. Yet we do not have enough materials even for our everyday functions.

    3. Hi Nick:

      This is how I see it. After I saw Jane’s show last Friday, I drove down 12th Avenue in Manhattan. Straight ahead, all the way were the great columns of light that mark the 9/11 attacks. Literal as the symbolism might seem, it caused me to remember that I aspire (sometimes) to let my life be useful, to let something come through me besides, well, me.

      But I know it’s not up to me. One effort I am trying lately (when I remember) is a version of the effort you described from Maurice Nicoll:

      Karma Yoga is the science of action with non-identifying. This phrase must be rememberd by everyone. The essence of Karma-Yoga is to meet with unpleasant things equally with pleasant things.

      In otherwords, I try not to non-identify with my life, to meet negativity and difficulty with a positive expectation (a real effort for me), to just keep showing up so to speak, like a day laborer looking for work. To have no attachment to outcomes.

  5. Art quoting Gurdjieff:

    A child is never born with a soul. A soul can be acquired only in the course of life. Even then it is a great luxury and only for a few. Most people live all their lives without a soul, without a master, and for ordinary life a soul is quite unnecessary.

    But a soul cannot be born from nothing. Everything is material and so is the soul, only it consists of very fine matter. Consequently, in order to acquire a soul, it is first of all necessary to have the corresponding matter. Yet we do not have enough materials even for our everyday functions.

    Just so you know that I believe Gurdjieff was at a level of Man, I cannot comprehend. I do wish Simone Weil had met him since I don’t believe she was ever “seen” before her mystical experiences. Gurdjieff could have given her something, the experience of being “seen,” she could not receive from anyone around her that I know of.

    Is Jacob Needleman’s description of gathered attention the same as the materiality G is referring to?

    “No matter what the religion, at the highest level prayer is related and emerges as a state of silence, inner silence, inner stillness. At a very high level one may believe that one is having a dialogue or directing a petition to God. Still, even this prayer is related to the tangible — something which one can objectify. This is emphasized in the Hannya Shingyo, the Buddhist Heart Sutra: “No prayer, no you, no me … no this, no that.” It goes on until we come to “No thing. Nothing,” where you can’t put labels, you can’t objectify. I think this view conceives of prayer as absolute emptiness, stillness.”
    — William Segal, A Voice at the Borders of Silence

    Is emptiness nothing or no-thing?

    “Absolute unmixed attention is prayer. ” Simone Weil

    So what prays to allow for what Gurdjieff makes us aware of? Is Meister Eckhart suggesting the same in this following quote?

    “Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God-seed into God.” ~ Meister Eckhart

    1. Lots of wonderful questions Nick. I cannot speak for what Jerry Needleman means. You could ask him; although I think he gets so many emails it is hard to get a response. But who knows you could try. He is a consulting editor for Parabola and has a facebook page.

      I didn’t know Mr. Segal except through his writings and talks and the videos of him that Ken Burns did. But I had the greatest respect for him. He was, in some part, instrumental in getting sittings (meditations) introduced into ‘the Work’. It was Madame de Salzmann who actually made them a form of the Work.

      What you say about Gurdjieff would have been able to ‘see’ Simone is very touching. Shows you hold her in very high regard and by way of that I am sure you have gotten much from her.

      I can say a little something about my experience of materiality in the way Gurdjieff spoke of it.

      Our emotions are matter and energy is the intellectual functioning. All of man’s functions are matter of different densities and vibrational speeds. This can be verified by way of the work with Attention on the Sensation of the body. In very quiet moments, sitting, I can know by way of awareness of sensation that word thought is much slower than emotion. The sensation of negative emotions is fiery and blinding. Feeling is entirely a different matter. It is much finer than the matter of emotion and has a smooth ‘taste’ where emotion tastes more coarse.

      I have begun to suspect that Attention (awareness, consciousness) is also matter of varying degrees of density and speed.

      Of course none of this answers the question of what are we, but it is possible to verify through certain practices that there is a great deal more to know about one’s self that we assume.

      Thank you again for the questions, because it is in a search together with the questions that each of us are fortunate enough to find, that we can have a real exchange.

  6. Art, I know what you mean by the energy of “feelings” being of a higher quality, It has been my experience as well.

    I’m part Armenian and the concept of “light” is important to Armenians. It is connected to a quality of “feelings.” It is also importnt to Sufis.

    One of my ancestor was a very gifted seascape artist. There was an exhibition that included one of his famous works that I went to visit. Two Sufi men noticed how I was taking it in and we began to talk about what the light meant.

    At the same time all the tension was going on in the world, I’m discussing ideas with two Sufi men that no one else around at that time would have been aware of. Yet within this idea of light and its relation to feelings lies the possibility for Plato’s inner morality or what we know of as opening to “conscience.”

    Tracy brought the value of art up and I must admit how much it meant on that day.

  7. Hi Tracy

    In otherwords, I try not to non-identify with my life, to meet negativity and difficulty with a positive expectation (a real effort for me), to just keep showing up so to speak, like a day laborer looking for work. To have no attachment to outcomes.
    Is the Buddhist concept of detachment meant to inspire a positive expectation or simply taking in impressions without any emotional expectations?

    You’ve reminded me of the difference between our potential for the conscious action of will and our more typical emotional reactions to desire.

  8. the aim of practice is to see clearly and also to transform the quality of heart and mind, to undo negative habits of though and feeling.

  9. Hi Tracy

    the aim of practice is to see clearly and also to transform the quality of heart and mind, to undo negative habits of though and feeling.

    I guess I was trying to put this into the perspective of “impartiaity.” Gurdjieff explained the necessity of being capable of self observation without the intent on change but just to observe the reality within. Otherwise it easily just transforms into another negative emotion. Simone Weil added:

    “Introspection is a psychological state incompatible with other states.

    “1. Thinking about things of the world precludes introspection.

    “2. Very strong emotion precludes introspection.

    “3. All actions which require attention preclude introspection.

    “To sum up, thought, action and emotion exclude examination of oneself.

    “[therefore] introspection results in one’s taking notice, for the most part, of what is passive in human thought. By the very fact that one keeps a watch on oneself, one changes: and the change is for the worse since we prevent that which is of greatest value in us from playing its part.”
    From: “Lectures on Philosophy”

    All in all, it seems that that there are two paths that may or may not be connected. One is the change of what we DO and the other is the change of what we ARE.

  10. Art

    Nick, do you have a facebook page or blog?
    No. I’ve haven’t really been concerned with having one.
    However, if you do, I’ll stop by and say hello.

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