If the doors of perception were cleansed everything
would appear to man as it is, infinite”
Do we Create Reality?
Jim Morrison picked a powerful verse on which to base his group—The Doors. The fusion of science and religion has been in progress for more than a century, but the pace of that fusion has increased many fold in recent decades. And the progression of artistic meaning has matched this fusion providing a clearer window into our collective mind. The issue we’re addressing in this essay involves the possibility that much of art is an attempt to bridge the gap between us and an overarching universal consciousness.
First, we’ll look at science. One of the biggest enigmas in science today is the observer effect, where consciousness seems to dictate the form that matter will take. This is the consistent result of more than a century of experiments using the famous “2 slit” apparatus. The interpretation of the results of these experiments is that there is no reality until it is observed. This suggests that everything that we consider “real” requires our observation, otherwise it exists only as a cloud of possibilities. The obvious challenges to this interpretation have been silenced by a series of new experiments called “delayed choice” which not only confirm the original explanation but deepen the mystery by suggesting that our observation can affect a past reality (see Hugh Everett).
An interesting parallel to this strange scientific theory is now emerging in new age philosophy. Rupert Spira, a current leader in metaphysical inquiry, makes this observer effect a platform for his description of what he believes to be the true nature of reality. “It was over a hundred years ago that it was first suggested by Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger and others that the observer may affect the observed, opening the debate as to the relationship between consciousness and matter.” Are we part of a universe that is conscious? If so, are we part of that one consciousness? And to the point, do we see that connection expressed (consciously or unconsciously) in our art?
Next, let’s think about something that seems way off the path, we’ll bring it home shortly. Have you ever seen a movie and felt that the book was so much better? The reason is when you read a book, your mind fills-in many of the details: the environment; the way the characters look; the sounds; etc. But when you see a movie all those things are provided for you, and your imagination is Handcuffed.
Now let’s link that to overall consciousness. Think about why it is that some people respond to certain works of art while others do not. Recently, our understanding of the doors of perception have been opened a crack by new theories including Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). This concept acknowledges that we cannot perceive reality as it is. Our sensory apparatus absorbs vibrations from the environment that are interpreted and completed in our brain. Immanuel Kant, in the 1700s addressed this very issue with the phrase “the thing in itself.” He pointed out that we perceive the world through our five senses. Never do we actually touch reality—we only sense what it might be. Whether the sky; the ground; other people; or anything, we never directly encounter “the thing in itself.” (see “Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant)
Specifically, regarding the new science of NLP, It’s important to realize that our conscious minds can deal with only a limited number of inputs, so we filter out most of the information available in the environment and fill-in the colors and textures as needed or desired. Ironically, in spite of absorbing minimal information we can generate a full and rich picture. According to Joseph O’Connor (author of Introducing NLP) “…we see through a complex series of active perceptual filters. The world we perceive is not the real world … it is a map made by our neurology.” Therefore, a book, a musical composition, a painting, a photograph, etc. is only the beginning of the process of art. The ultimate perception takes place within and with the collaboration of our mind.
So, a work of art is only initiated on the page, the keyboard or the canvas and completed in our minds. There are several explanations of the minimalism movement of the 20th century but NLP is likely the most powerful explanation of its success. It leaves ample room for us to interpret and insert meaning. When we listen, for example, to Metamorphosis by Philip Glass the sparse chords trigger feelings—often from deep in our subconscious. The impact is created within us—the score blended with the piano is simply the fuse that ignites the experience that occurs inside us.
Likewise, minimalist photography provides a sparse canvas that our mind completes. For example, Jeremy Brooks pulls powerful emotions for many with subtle hints in She moved to California. The economy of the image draws out a world of stinging memories among an audience for whom the message is relevant. Each viewer completes the picture, internally, with his/her own personal account.
Even the science of physiology supports the truth of this process. Here’s a trick question—what organ do we see with? Most of us immediately say “eyes.” And we would be wrong. We see with our minds. Our eyes combined with our complex visual biology are effective in capturing certain vibrations in the environment, which is nothing more than, of course, vibrations. The color red, for example, doesn’t exist in a tomato—that color only exists in our minds after the vibrations have been captured, analyzed and interpreted. And our minds, through capturing light waves, sound waves, texture, olfactory particles, etc.; analyzing this input, and developing an interpretation generates all the reality we mistakenly assume to be “out there.”
From here we take a reasonable leap into Zen philosophy. I’m a mild skeptic, however a compelling case can be made for the concept that, not only is our reality being generated in our minds as opposed to “out there,” but, that there is an overall reality to which our minds are somehow connected. According to Buddha, “Nothing ever exists entirely alone. Everything is in relation to everything else.”
Much of Zen art is designed to focus the mind on the simplicity, and more importantly, the unity of existence. Here, the sand circles represent the illusions of the world we perceive centered by the one consciousness that inspires everything. Note that the circles are two-dimensional while the sphere is three dimensional. Does this interpretation evoke a conscious recognition in our minds? Possibly, but it does more frequently resonate with subconscious perceptions.
So, just what is real? Let’s go back to how we see. Once again think about the color red. It doesn’t exist in nature. Vibrations of a certain frequency are collected by our sense organs (eyes) and interpreted in our minds as “red.” In fact, it’s not just the color red, but any color or any thing in the world. All of it is vibrations of various frequencies, absorbed through our senses and “interpreted” as reality.
Immanuel Kant, in the eighteenth century, questioned the reality of anything material. He said that we can never know “the thing in itself.” He felt that our
senses provide merely interpretations of “real things” that are resolved in our minds, not in the world—so, “…our rational cognition applies only to appearances, and leaves the thing in itself unrecognized by us…” That “necessarily impels us to go beyond the boundary of experience and of all appearances…” to attempt to grasp reality.
To me, that sounds like an invitation to use art and meditation in our search for truth. Currently Rupert Spira, responds to that invitation by interpreting Zen concepts. Historically Zen masters have emphasized that call. As do artists in every media.
Carl Jung is famous for his theory of the “collective unconscious” which he uses to explain many of the enigmas of human behavior. In it, the idea of a unified consciousness beyond the easy reach of individuals is presented. If it be true that there can be no metaphysics transcending human reason, it is no less true that there can be no empirical knowledge that is not already caught and limited by the a priori structure of cognition.”
It seems everywhere I turn these days I run into Zen-like references. It shows up, for example, in something supposedly far-afield from this topic.
In Charles Dicken’s The Curiosity Shop, there’s a description of an early morning walk that presents a vision of a unified consciousness expressing itself through material entities: “The flowers that sleep by night, opened their gentle eyes and turned them to the day. The light, creation’s mind, was everywhere, and all things owned its power.”
Well, there’s far more to this story than can be condensed into a brief essay. In the immortal words of Alex Grey “I think that that’s why artists make art—it is difficult to put into words unless you are a poet. What it takes is being open to the flow of universal creativity. The Zen artists knew this.”
References for image sources and editing review: