By Ira Rabois
It all began one evening when I got totally engrossed in viewing Japanese woodblock prints, especially 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 imagine myself in the depicted scene or sit with the mood the print and my seeing of it created.
One night scene was of the Chuson-ji Temple in Japan. A long series of wide steps led up through trees to the temple. There was moonlight and a bright star, but no moon. I slowed down, stopped rushing, and just lingered on the scene, let my eyes feel the steps so I could walk up them in my imagination and reach the building itself.
Then I closed my eyes and let the scene rest inside me, before opening them again to allow new details I had missed earlier to enter the picture.
By touching in this mindful way, we are touched; we feel what we see.
The artwork is perceived with more dimension. I learned this practice at a retreat organized by psychotherapist Lawrence Leshan.
Later that night, I drove into town to buy groceries. Along the way, I noticed 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 before me was the physical road, buildings, and trees. The next, a beautiful portrait of the same.
In the afternoon a few days later, a similar experience occurred. As I walked up a rural road, I saw as I might normally see–light breaking through the hillside forest roof and bouncing off tree leaves–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 not just art as a creation, but vision itself. He painted the same scene in different seasons and times of day. 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, or each instant as a once in a lifetime event.
The beautiful temples Hasui painted were not just an external scene he perceived but an element of the artist, his society, history, mood, the time of day, the weather and quality of light. We are not a being locked in a wall of skin, but one movement in a universe dancing itself into being.
Sometimes, we get caught up in what we see or hear. Our focus becomes possessive and exclusive. The object we see over there reinforces the sense of a separate me over here. 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. 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.
Exercises Looking Out a Window
Is it possible to perceive each artwork as a window or a door to a hidden place in ourselves, or the universe, like C. S. Lewis’ wardrobe doorway to Narnia? Just like a painting might be framed, a window frames the world for us to view with care and attention.
Here are exercises we can use to expand our appreciation of art and perception. We can do them for ourselves or share them with students. Before we share them, we first practice them ourselves. We feel and reflect on how they affect us. We imagine each individual child doing it. Many of us are struggling now with painful traumas and loss. We need to develop trauma sensitive eyes and hearts. We need to hold our children and ourselves with hands of empathy and compassion.
1. Look out any window of your home or school, one with a perspective you feel most comfortable viewing, and imagine it as a work of art, a painting or a photograph. Adjust the angle of viewing to get the most engaging or beautiful scene. Then maybe take that photograph or paint that scene.
2. Close your eyes partly or fully, or just sit and imagine what place, person you’d like to see outside, a building, or a mountain, stream, elephant, or cardinal.
3. As you look out the window, simply notice what thoughts arise and any response to a thought; and then let it go. Or write down in a journal what you hear as you hear it. Or turn thoughts or internal commentary into a poem, song, name, or label that reveals or expands what you perceive.
4. Maybe, as a teacher, you could bring to class photos, artworks or natural objects, a pinecone or stone, something you think the students might enjoy.
a. Let them look through and pick out one to sit with as if it was what they saw
out a window.
b. Instead of looking intently with a concentrated gaze, request they soften and
broaden their gaze. Let the breath slow.
c. Take in the whole piece, whatever is seen.
d. Then look at a detail in the painting, or a strain of color in the stone, or the
bottom of the pinecone.
e. Then return gently, almost lovingly to the whole of whatever they’re viewing.
5. Or imagine the act or moment of creating something or of being inspired. Can you remember one of your own moments of creation? What did it feel like to be inspired and create? If you’d like to feel it, do so.
6. Or turn what you’re seeing now, here into a work of art. Look at the scene before you as if looking out a window. Let your eyes be like a soft brush painting what you see or imagine. Then let your eyes broaden to take in the whole room or whole scene at once. Notice the textures, colors. How would you capture the sounds and mood? Notice the spaces between things, between the walls, you and the walls, you and others.
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 or actions 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.
Borrowing from the novelist Graham Greene, “Hatred is just a failure of imagination.” The unkind person can’t imagine the suffering of another. Art can open the eyes of imagination. It 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 blog is an expanded revisiting of one I wrote last year for The Good Men Project.
**Before doing any of the exercises, you might consult one of the links for fuller explanations.
About The Author
Interested in reading more from this author? Other posts on imaginED by Ira Rabois: