In the Still of the Now

tolle stillnessStillness is the only thing in this world that has no form.
But then, it is not really a thing, and it is not of this world.
— Eckhart Tolle

Those familiar with the writings of Eckhart Tolle have often referred to the transformative effect of his dual bestsellers, The Power of Now and A New Earth. Consider me a convert.

Having read more than my share of books devoted to the journey of self-discovery (often convoluted offerings that may inspire initially but whose impact soon dissipates once you’ve finished reading them), both Power of Now and New Earth are works you actually return to – over and over – as boosters to a philosophy that is both amazing in its simplicity, as well as its depth.

I recently learned of the Tolle books, first published in 1999 and 2005 respectively, thanks to my “Irish-twin” brother (we’re less than a year apart), not expecting the profound effect that they would have on my approach to life and insights into areas that previously defied answers. I realized there was something very different going on here, as I encountered paragraphs that would stop me in my tracks, demanding to be pondered, asking questions that I never realized lay just beneath the surface.

Tolle’s belief is that everything converges in the moment, in the Now, and that understanding this lies at the core of “consciousness,” and more specifically the “presence” that is necessary to free oneself of old hurts (what he calls the “pain-body”) as well as those obsessions about the future that keep us from realizing our truest potential. I’d venture to say Tolle’s discussions of the ever-hungry pain-body, which feeds on destructive emotion – anger, resentment, regret — are infinitely more perceptive than years of therapy.

Perhaps most transcendent are his thoughts on “stillness,” and the idea that the ineffable center that lies at the core of our being is actually at the very essence of the cosmos itself:

“And the greatest miracle is this: That stillness and vastness that enables the universe to be is not just out there in space – it is also within you. When you are utterly and totally present, you encounter it as the still inner space of no-mind.”

It is the pesky mind — with its intrusive thoughts and rigid form structures that make-up what Tolle terms our “egoic” selves — which requires constant vigilance if one is to forge a path towards the ultimate goal of inner nonresistance.

There’s an absolutely wonderful anecdote about how Tolle was once sitting in a park watching ducks on a lake when a fight broke out between two of the creatures (territorial encroachment or what not). When it was (quickly) over, they both vigorously flapped their wings, as if to shake off any remaining negative energy, then serenely glided off in separate directions as if nothing had happened.ducks

“If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive by thinking, by story-making,” Tolle writes. “This would probably be the duck’s story: ‘I don’t believe what he just did. He came to within five inches of me. He thinks he owns this pond. He has no consideration for my private space. I’ll never trust him again. Next time he’ll try something else just to annoy me. I’m sure he’s plotting something already…’ And on and on the mind spins its tales, still thinking and talking about it days, months, or years later.

“You can see how problematic the duck’s life would become if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all of the time. No situation or event is ever really finished. The mind and the mind-made ‘me and my story’ keep it going.”

It’s a powerful example taken from nature, which Tolle often alludes to as a guidepost to understanding the Now in action, and the quiet force of stillness in all its manifestations.

Time to heed those ducks.

Photo/top: Gladys Triana

Federer Expressed

FedererLet’s serve up some tennis —  with a dash of literature — for a moment. With the U.S. Open in full swing, and Roger Federer, at age 34, seeming to defy any logic of time progression as he seeks an 18th career major title, I took the opportunity to re-read a magnificent essay by the brilliant novelist David Foster Wallace that appeared in the New York Times back in 2006. Wallace (author of Infinite Jest, and who tragically took his own life just a couple of years later) had a serious passion for tennis, and the essay, which ran with the headline “Roger Federer as Religious Experience,” is one of the most analytically perfect you can ask for from a layman whose enthusiasm for the game, together with his staggering writing gifts, come together in a piece that can be pondered over endlessly by tennis fans, much in the same way that scholars pick over Wallace’s literary masterpieces.

The Federer article was not Wallace’s only venture into the field of tennis; another, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” is also a must-read for those interested in the subject. What makes these writings fascinating, of course, is assimilating Wallace’s unique sensibilities in a realm far removed from the world of books.

As I mentioned, the Federer essay was written in 2006, specifically at the time of the Wimbledon championships, where the Swiss-born Federer would meet the Spaniard Rafael Nadal in the finals. “It’s the passionate machismo of southern Europe versus the clinical artistry of the north,” wrote Wallace. Is there a more on-the-mark summary of that legendary rivalry? He goes on to dissect the match with a gorgeously descriptive sense of Federer’s mastery:

“A top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly. Or to evoke. Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height.”

“He is never hurried or off-balance. The approaching ball hangs, for him, a split-second longer than it ought to,” Wallace goes on. “The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.”

Exempt from physical laws indeed. As I write this, nearly ten years after Wallace’s indelible words, the maestro is walking onto the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for what turns out to be another routine win in the third round, moving him closer to the quarterfinals of the tournament. The wizard still has some tricks up his sleeve; a lot of buzz has been about the SABR (“Sneak Attack By Roger”), a new tactic employed by the sly virtuoso as he rushes the net unexpectedly after returning serve, much to the befuddlement of his opponents.

Wallace talked about Federer’s uncanny ability to “misdirect and disguise” – and, one can add, mesmerize. As with all genius, his talent has always harbored more than its share of the creative. And win or lose this week in New York, how lucky we have been to have witnessed the magic.

Making Waves

waveTwo stunning images by Australian photographer Warren Keelan were among the winners announced last week at the International Landscape Photographer of the Year Awards, where over 2,600 photos by both amateurs and professionals alike were narrowed to a “Top 101” of the finest shots submitted to the competition. “I love the raw, unpredictable nature of water in motion, and the way sunlight brings it all to life, from both above and below the surface,” said Keelan, who aptly – and simply – titled his photos “Kryptonite,” above, and “Teal” (and what a lovely shade of teal it is!) shown below.  A gallery of other amazing shots from the portfolio of winning entries is featured here.

City of Angles

los angeles baldessari
“Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (Best of Thirty-Six Attempts)” by John Baldessari, 1973.

The cornucopia of contrasts afforded by the enigmatic vistas of Los Angeles are no doubt a photographer’s dream, and the work of some of the very best has been collected in the recently published Both Sides of Sunset: Photographing Los Angeles, featuring sharply insightful interpretations of a city where paradox tinged with the surreal lies around every corner. Legends such as Bruce Davidson and Garry Winogrand as well as edgy contemporaries like Alex Prager are just a few of the photographers who have set out to define their visions of what makes LA a place like no other.

los angeles lopez
“Giving Tree” by Dan Lopez, 2014

The two images shown here capture the unexpected juxtapositions that somehow make perfect sense in a locale known for the fantasies it manufactures; the angularities, if you will, that in their own way shape a metropolis that can be said to be more a state of mind than anything else. John Baldessari’s shot at top, along with its title, is an apt summation of the experience – a metaphorical attempt to bring alignment to imbalance (no matter how long it takes).

Similarly, Dan Lopez – who calls Los Angeles “a virtually endless and ever-changing treasure map of transient landscapes” – manages to imbue the image shown above with an innate understanding of atmospherics and context: it’s compositionally precise, and at the same time, oddly evocative.

Along with so many other photos in Before Sunset, it demonstrates how LA will always defy cliché.

Pop Culture Musing for a Tuesday 8/4/15

love storiesLove, Again: There’s a saying about true love stories never really having an ending, and I thought about that in a very literal sense when I had the chance to see a production of Love Letters, the highly successful Broadway play by A.R Gurney that recently began a national tour with Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in the lead roles.

For those who may or may not remember, O’Neal and MacGraw starred in a rather famous movie called Love Story, from a phenomenon of a book by Erich Segal (it eventually sold 21 million copies) that came to the screen in 1970. It can be described as The Fault in Our Stars of its time, an all-out tearjerker that immediately created superstars of the two actors who played the protagonists (more due to their physical attractiveness than for their actual acting talents, it should be said).

ryan o'neal_ali mcgraw
O’Neal and MacGraw in “Love Story” (1970), above, and reunited once more, below.

Seeing the film as a youngster, I would have been hard-pressed to believe I would be watching the pair on a theatre stage 45 years later, obviously a bit weathered for wear, but surprisingly, still with touches of the o'neal_mcgrawchemistry that contributed to Love Story’s timeless appeal. As the characters in Love Letters sit at a desk on a barren stage reading correspondence from a relationship that spanned almost 50 years – while never actually looking at each other – it was easy to imagine the Melissa and Andy of the play as senior versions of the Oliver and Jenny of Love Story.

Which proves there’s something to be said for nostalgia. Looking around at the theatregoers, it was pretty clear what the target demographic was for Love Letters, which is essentially designed as a vehicle for past-their-prime stars to pull in audiences who remember them from their heyday. But the writing has its moments (the play, after all, was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1990) and for the veteran troupers O’Neal and MacGraw it provides some eerily reminiscent allusions that recall scenes from their career-making movie of decades ago.

If, as in the iconic line uttered by MacGraw in Love Story, “love means never having to say you’re sorry,”  sometimes it can also mean never having to say goodbye.

Yellow is the Color

“The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.”
Wallace Stevens

cadmium yellow
Cadmium yellow, above, is involved in a chemical contretemps affecting priceless artworks.

In some recent news that caused a bit of concern in art circles, researchers have confirmed that those golden hues so brilliantly used in paintings by Henri Matisse (as well as Vincent van Gogh) have been slowly degrading over the years into dullish, beige-like tones, giving the works a considerably altered appearance since their creation a century ago.

It’s all due to a complicated chemical process involving the pigment known as cadmium yellow (not to be confused with chrome yellow, which falls differently on the color spectrum).  Used by artists from the 1880s until the 1920s, cadmium yellow was a popular compound among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at the time (though, alas, not Edgar Degas, who once harrumphed, “What a horrible thing yellow is.”) The ramifications of this not-so-mellow yellow debate are not insignificant: “Literally billions of dollars’ worth of art is affected by this chemistry,” said one scientist at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Henri Matisse was, of course, the “master of color” — and naturally, the master of yellow. The intensity of his passion for all things chromatic is captured in several conversations cited in the book, Matisse on Art, an illustrious detailing of the artist’s insights on the subject. In one interview, he talks in gushing terms of a cactus flower in his French garden: “…look how it shines like a burning coal against the grayish green background, like a spider web hanging above thick dark silk!” In another, he speaks of the blue tomatoes that appear in a famed canvas. Why blue? “Because I see them that way, and I cannot help it if no one else does,” he answered. (You go, Monsieur Matisse!)

As for yellow, it’s one of the colors (blue and green being the others), which appears most often in his work. A hue he specifically derived from the blossom of the cactus tree, he considered yellow an abiding and life-affirming symbol.

matisse young girl with a sofa
Matisse’s “Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa,” from 1940.

I wondered about Matisse’s thinking in the use of the color in Young Girl with a Yellow Sofa, above (the painting was unaffected by the cadmium controversy, as it was produced in his late career). More than just a splash or a highlight — it’s red that he chose to do that with here, even on the chair itself — the yellow envelops the reclining figure in an almost organic sense. And is it too farfetched to think the patterns on the young lady’s blouse as well as those that appear directly behind her, put together, are reminiscent of cacti? Maybe a stretch, but the artistic mind works in curious fashion, as they say.

“Color acts in the way that music does,” the Cubist Georges Braque once mused. “You put a blob of yellow here, and another at the further edge of the canvas: straight away a rapport is established between them…”

The yellow glistens, in the poet’s words — and it sings, as well.

Timeless Troubadour

james taylorFOR TODAY’S GENERATION  of pop music fans, the initials “JT” may stand for Justin Timberlake. But for those of a certain age, they will always be synonymous with another JT: James Taylor, who – lo and behold – recently scored his first No. 1 album on the Billboard music charts at the age of 67 with Before This World, his first recording of original material since 2002.

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