Non-duality and abstract intuitive painting
What I’m going to write about now might sound very difficult and theoretical. But I believe that every painter knows from experience what I will try to say here, and moreover, that it is one of the big reasons why people are so drawn to abstract intuitive painting.
What does non-duality mean? I’m not a philosopher, nor a theologian or ‘spiritual expert,’ but non-duality means to me that ‘you’ are not separate from ‘the world around you.’ You are not an isolated individual who is trying to work her way through life, trying to get ‘somewhere.’
On the contrary, life is one big moving and flowing entity, and we are an integral part of it. A famous metaphor for this is the metaphor of the sea and the waves. You can see different waves if you are looking to the ocean, but they are all made from the same ‘stuff.’ The ocean is one swirling, moving being, and the waves fundamentally can’t be separated from it.
The sense of ‘I’
We are brought up to believe and experience differently. When we were still in the womb, we did not feel any separation between our mother and ourselves. And when we were babies and toddlers, the sense of ‘I’ had not formed yet very well. But the older we grow, the more we start to feel separate from other children and our parents. And that’s a useful thing. Otherwise, it might be very difficult to survive in this world.
There is a big drawback to developing this sense of ‘I,’ though. The older we get, the more we forget to realize that fundamentally, we are not separate from each other. We are all made from the same ‘stuff,’ just as the waves are made from the same water. And we don’t have to ‘find our way in life’ since we are life itself. Life is living its way through us.
This might all sound very theoretical. And actually, it is theoretical, because those things can’t be put in words. Words point to something but never are what they point to. Like the zen-masters say: ‘The finger that points to the moon is not the moon itself.’
But even though my story is theoretical, we all have experienced moments that this fundamental ‘being-one’ is palpable, when we have a baby in our arms for instance. Or when we are immersed in nature, we sometimes can feel at one with the mountain that we hike, or the woods that we are in.
But things don’t need to be ‘special,’ for you to experience the non-dual. Sometimes you can sit in the sun with a cup of coffee, and suddenly without reason all so-called ‘problems’ fall away, and you just ‘are.’ Or you throw old papers in the paper bin, and suddenly, for no reason, you experience a state of simple bliss. Or even if you pass by a very ugly industrial area, you can recognize the beauty that’s hidden in everything (which does not mean that you cannot fiercely fight the planning of ugly industry terrains, but that’s a whole different story).
Soon after we experience this state of non-duality, our perspective usually returns to the habitual old dual perspective again. Life becomes something that’s threatening, or problematic, or that has to be dealt with. But there always stays a sweet memory of those non-dual moments, and deep down we know that that’s the real thing. That that’s life at it’s truest, instead of the ‘problematic’ life that we live most of the time.
Now, what has this all to do with abstract intuitive painting?
Usually, when we start painting, the painting that we want to make is ‘there,’ and we are ‘here.’ We have to work and to learn and to practice to get from here to there. And of course, this is true. We need to go the store and buy paint that we did not have before. We need to learn how to apply the paint to the brush, and how to move it around. But this is all very practical, and we don’t experience that as problematic or difficult.
The problematic part is the way that we are afraid that we will not be able to paint a beautiful painting. We doubt ourselves, because we don’t know how to force the paint where we want it to go. We struggle with our materials, and we can be very critical about the results, and about ourselves as painters. We secretly think we are not ‘real painters.’ And we usually compare ourselves to ‘the other painters,’ who make ‘better work,’ and therefore are the ‘real painters’ that we would like to be.
And then, when we’re wrapped up in our self-doubt and constriction, something can suddenly change. Our ‘problematic self’ can disappear, without our even realizing it. We enter the ‘non-dual’ terrain—which we of course never left. We only were not aware of it because we were captivated by our dual perspective and our mind running around dividing the world into ‘ourselves’ and ‘the rest of it.’
In that ‘non-dual’ awareness, we don’t work with paints and colors and textures and shapes, no, we are paints and colors and textures and shapes. We as separate individuals disappear, and there is only the act of painting left. We are dancing with our materials, and our materials dance with us in one colorful dance.
Making a painting from that non-dual perspective is effortless. Every step on the road evolves from the former in a completely natural way. We don’t have to think about our next move, we just ‘wait’ for it, look forward to it. We are curious—hey, how will this turn out? What will my brush do? Which crayon will jump in my hand? What color will appear?
I am convinced that people are drawn to making abstract intuitive art because they know deep down that this is how they want to live. Effortlessly, dancing with the world in a completely natural way, without striving or competing, without pressure or self-doubt.
Analysis and techniques
This does not mean that you can’t analyze your work afterward. You can recognize what works in a painting, and what doesn’t. You can feel what your emotional response is to your work, what you don’t like and what you do like, and reflect on that.
Learning about value, colors, mark-making techniques, and so on is not opposed to ‘non-dual painting,’ either. All those things don’t interfere with your free-flowing movements. On the contrary, they become an integral part of the dance between you, your materials, and your evolving painting.
And here we come to why I believe that daily, or regular, painting is so worthwhile. If you paint often, you train your ‘non-dual muscle,’ so to speak. You recognize better when you are entering the state of non-duality, and you can more easily stay there. You realize when you are getting constricted in forcing yourself, and you practice letting go of striving. You start trusting that this oneness is always there.
You just have to change your perspective.
ps: Please share your experience and ideas below! I would love to read them.