Words on WORDLESS

Burning Man 2017 marked my eleventh burn in a row and the first year that I brought a piece of art to the playa.

WORDLESS was a large three-dimensional word made out of wood. It stood 10 feet high and 40 feet wide. The word that was displayed was “WORD” and the surface of the structure was covered in pages of scripture from many of the world’s major religions: the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and the Tao Te Ching. The structure had a hidden sound source embedded inside it which emanated a deep rumbling “OM” vibration. A circular perimeter around the structure was lined with meditation benches, inviting people to sit and just be for a moment. The structure itself was burned on Friday morning as the sun was rising.

The original idea for WORDLESS was seeded a couple years ago, loosely inspired by the word sculptures that I had seen on the playa. I think the idea started as something like, “what if you had a word and it said WORD!” As the concept evolved, I associated the biblical reference to John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) and thought of covering the word in pages of scripture from many different religions. When I first thought of the idea it seemed far too controversial and I didn’t feel like I was in a place to work with scripture in that way.

Burning Man 2016 brought the project back into my mind and gave me a deeper sense of clarity about the intention behind the work. I came out of that burn feeling a sense of wholeness and surrender. I had what you might call a mystical experience – a brief glimpse into something that felt very much like God. It’s hard to explain the experience but it was so simple – God just is and is everything and we are an expression of that. The experience profoundly affected me and formed the basis of my intention for the WORDLESS project.

The project seemed even more timely given the theme for this year’s burn, Radical Ritual. Burning Man described it briefly as follows:

Beyond the dogmas, creeds, and metaphysical ideas of religion, there is immediate experience. It is from this primal world that living faith arises. In 2017, we will invite participants to create interactive rites, ritual processions, elaborate images, shrines, icons, temples, and visions. Our theme will occupy the ambiguous ground that lies between reverence and ridicule, faith and belief, the absurd and the stunningly sublime. The human urge to make events, objects, actions, and personalities sacred is protean. It can fix on and inhabit anyone or anything. This year our art theme will release this spirit in the Black Rock Desert.

Part of what I wanted to convey was this idea that we add so many layers of abstraction and interpretation on top of something that is so simple. People create complexity – all these rites, rituals, and tasks that must be accomplished in order to connect with God – when the truth is we are a perfect expression of God as we are and we are closest to that aspect in the depth of our own being.

This is why the project was called WORDLESS. First, because this aspect of God is impossible to truly capture in words and, second, to symbolically burn away all these words and layers of abstraction to just be with ourselves as we are.

One of the challenges in initially trying to share the idea for this work with other people was properly conveying the intention behind the project in a way that people could understand what I was trying to say by combining scripture with such a seemingly simple word. Personally, I found myself constantly peeling back many layers of meaning and this was part of the richness and challenge of the piece for me. There was also a certain irony in trying to use words to describe a project called WORDLESS. The following was part of the original write up:

Scripture speaks of word, vibration as the source of all creation. Humans are endowed with this power of spoken word. We use words to create the world we live in. Our understanding of ourselves as an expression of creation, created in the creator’s image, and creators in our own right is the foundation of conscious creation.

Thus we are confronted with the power of our own words. And we burn the word to reestablish our connection to the word, to the purity of our own use of the word, and the purity of our own understanding of ourselves as expression of God’s vibration. We let go of all the concepts that we have created on top of the word to just be as we are.

I had an opportunity to engage with many different people from different faiths about their reaction to this work. The most sensitive aspect of the project was my intention to burn the scripture. Jewish people, in particular, had a very hard time with the idea.

It was Hari Kaur, my Kundalini yoga teacher, who emphasized my own lack of grounding in the subject. Although devotion to God is at the heart of my daily aspiration, I do not have any formal background with religious tradition or scriptural study. As one Rabbi I spoke with put it, it’s very easy to make a strong statement using a medium that means little to you and everything to someone else. I found this aspect of my relationship to the subject matter troubling. In my heart, I felt that it was ok for me to work with scripture as a medium but I also felt that I had to bring more mindfulness to my understanding of what I was working with.

I enrolled into a series of religious literacy courses out of Harvard on EdX. The first course I took was on Judaism and it made me appreciate just how central the Torah is to the Jewish identity. My continuing conversations led to the insight that burning scripture was profoundly disrespectful to some of the traditions represented in the texts I was using. It was hard for me to assert a message about being and acceptance while simultaneously disregarding the beliefs of the traditions I was working with.

After some deep consideration, I decided to burn the word but not burn the scripture. The scripture itself was to be removed just before burning the word. In retrospect, this was an interesting compromise. At heart, my intention was to convey a message about going beyond words (scriptural or otherwise) to a deeper essence – to recognize the inherent simplicity of divine presence inside ourselves and everyday life. Part of the experience was the provocation of being confronted with the action of burning scripture as a catalyst to examine one’s spiritual values.

Not burning the scripture made the project much more fundable and it made it easier for people to get involved because the project was not intrinsically offensive to anyone. Over 30 people contributed to funding the project, and as many showed up throughout the week of Burning Man to support the build and burn process.

Would the burning action have made a significant difference in the experience of the piece? I am not sure. In the end, a level of compromise was reached through a process of extended dialog, weighing something that I felt strongly about against something that others felt very strongly about. Perhaps that, in itself, is a major source of insight and growth for all involved.

Interestingly, despite my desire to burn the scripture, treatment of the scripture was one of the most challenging aspects of the project for me. I felt a responsibility to be very respectful of each page I dealt with. First, at this scale and working in these conditions, it was very difficult to be delicate with every page I touched. But the real challenge was that I couldn’t extend my own sentiment to all the people that came by to help us and certainly not to all the people who experienced the piece after it was built. Simple things like treating the scripture with care, not putting the scripture on the ground, or not stepping on the scripture. There were many times I came by to see people climbing all over the piece. There was little I could do about this and it was very much an exercise in letting go.

In a way, the project was a metaphor for the many varieties of interpretation possible with scripture. Each person I spoke with had a slightly different interpretation of the piece. For one of my partners building the project, Krasimir, the project symbolized unifying all religions into one religion. For another good friend of mine, the project was about words and how we use them. For some, it was an opportunity to lose oneself in reading snippets of scripture that presented meaning in the moment or simply a place to sit and meditate. For others, especially those who only saw the structure from a distance, the piece was a tongue in check satirical reference to all the words seen on the playa. For me it was all those things, but mostly a desire to manifest an experience that would bring people into presence with themselves and God in some way.

As a side note, the experience of working on this project has opened up a whole new field of interest for me. I realized that the formal study of religion captures many of my many interests: governance, economy, education, philosophy, history, spirituality, community, dialog, art, and even technology. I am currently enrolled in my third online religious literacy course and this subject is increasingly becoming a focus of my study, art, and work.

Issues of religion are sensitive and this project was particularly provocative in that regard. The intention here was not to offend, but rather to encourage deep exploration and dialog around the meaning of spiritual values and identity. In that sense, it was very important for me to get as many people and perspectives involved to give the project more legitimacy.

One of the biggest highlights of this project was the incredible number of people that came together to make it happen. My wife, Natasha, spent countless hours supporting me in virtually every aspect of this project and Krasimir Alaykov, Natalia Rudakova, George Bakardjiev all joined as part of the dream team that spent endless hours in brutal conditions bringing the word to this world. Krasimir led the build effort and was instrumental in realizing every physical aspect behind the project. He is a master craftsman and his incredible attention to detail truly blew me away.

I was also deeply touched by the support of Camp Merkabah. I still can’t believe how many people showed up to the burn at 5 am! From funding to build to burn, many people from the extended Merkabah community stepped up to offer tremendous help in making the project happen. Tommy Rom and David Shemesh in particular were instrumental in making the project a reality.

Actualizing this project was a tremendous experience for me. Literally every aspect of this project was community supported. I was deeply moved that almost 40 people came together to fund the project (we raised just over $13,000 between the camp, individual contributions, and a crowdfunding campaign) and many people contributed in other ways.

Working with the Burning Man organization itself was also a great experience.  Annie Coleman from Art Support Services and Doxie from FAST (Fire Art Safety Team) were super professional and guided me every step of the way through my first art project.  Both pre-playa and on playa, every request we made was handled in a timely manner and I felt really supported throughout the whole process.

On the playa, the project itself took a tremendous toll on me physically and was brutally difficult. Building the structure, doing gas runs every twelve hours to keep the generator running, preparing to burn it, burning it, then cleaning the ashes was a non-stop responsibility during the week of Burning Man. Natasha and I both ended up with severe colds and were completely knocked out by the end of the week. Creating art on the playa helped me appreciate just how much effort goes into every piece of work out there. It’s a serious commitment.

One of my favorite moments of the week was early during the build.  It was around midnight and we had been working non-stop on the playa since 9 am.  Our last meal had been around lunch time.  A lone white van pulled up and a guy asked if we were hungry.  I’m one of those super picky eaters (vegetarian, gluten and dairy free) so I was a little apprehensive.  He mentioned something about Spanish style tapas, which sounded like it might have potential so I said sure… ten seconds later two pick up trucks pull up ranger style and two or three dozen people all dressed up in party gear jump out.  Dance music starts playing, a large table is set up, and huge platters of gourmet food come out – cucumbers with gazpacho soup, roasted peppers, quiche, all sorts of fancy cuisine.  This happens in the space of about sixty seconds.  Mind blown.  One of my all time most memorable moments on the playa.  A very big heartfelt thank you to Feed the Artists for creating this magic.  It truly touched my heart.

I have learned so much through this experience and received so much on a personal level. I am forever grateful to Burning Man and the incredible people that make it happen. So many people give so much to make Burning Man what it is and I am just deeply honored that I have had a chance to contribute back to this community somehow. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

The Tao Te Ching begins with the following words:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name

WORDLESS emphasized that God, or whatever notion of creation origin we might have, is inherently indescribable. Thus we acknowledge the word and simultaneously burn it to acknowledge the wordless source from which all words and things emerge. It is my sincere belief that as more people find this common source within themselves many of the challenges facing humanity will be addressed in a more constructive and harmonious way.

God bless.

Special thanks to Geoffrey Squier Silver for taking the top most photo of me sitting in front of the word.

Words are a means to penetrate. To penetrate soul, form, meaning, emotion, and experience. When you hear words that truly touch you, it is because those words have penetrated something true. The penetration itself makes the words universally true because each of us is an individuated expression of the same cosmic fabric. When words penetrate to a deeper essence they penetrate to an essence that is universally true and thus universally resonant.

How does one penetrate so deeply? Surrender. What does that mean? It is a continuing endeavor to strip away the unnecessary to arrive at the heart of something and a faith that through continued effort one will.

I find the act of making art to be penetrating. To create something is to enter its form from within. Through that experience I can channel language that deeply expresses my experience of that depth. It is for this reason that I wish to create more art. To experience and express the essence of what I observe in the process of creation. To experience and express the essence of my experience. I wish to penetrate deeply into life and creation itself. I wish to express this in such a way that gives other people this experience of sublime penetration.

Truth is my Identity

I was recently inspired by a vision I saw while meditating on a ten day silent Vipasana retreat.  Ten days is a long time to sit without speaking.  Inevitably the mind comes up with all sorts of ways to distract.  At one point, I had a vision of a nuclear mushroom cloud with the words SAT NAM overlaid over it.

Sat Nam is the main word that appears in the Sikh sacred scripture.  The word Sat means “everlasting truth” and the word Nam means “name”.  Translated loosely, it means “who’s name is truth” or “truth is my identity”.

In that moment I considered that all of life is part of truth.  Whatever concept of God we might have, it surely embodies all of reality as it is.  The light and the dark.  The good and the bad.

It can be easy to become disillusioned or righteous.  But how do we maintain an equanimous perspective – seeing the entirety of reality as interconnected?

I was inspired to translate this vision into a physical art piece.  I worked with mediums that were entirely new to me but quickly found support through research and friends.  The first piece came together within a couple of weeks and I felt called the expand on the concept with additional imagery beyond the nuclear explosion.  What was most striking to me was this idea of using challenging imagery not to criticize but to create dialog.

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The reality is that we are all products of this world as it is.  Were it any different, we would be different.  As we endeavor to change the world, it is important to accept this fact and recognize that it is implicit in whatever social or political function we wish to address.

I spent months collecting images that I felt were reflective of the global human condition that has emerged over the last century.

Each piece is a social mirror calling us to stop and reflect on how what we see has somehow informed who we are.  The goal being to approach the subject matter not with judgement, but with acceptance as we endeavor to see our own reflection in whatever is being depicted.

Though the things we see may not be agreeable to us, they are nonetheless part of our reality.  A reality of which we are also an expression.  By acknowledging this, we can overcome notions of the 1% or the 99% and consider that shifting our global situation requires a holistic approach that involves all participants in the system.

My wife, Natasha, and I partnered with Alhia Chacoff-Berger from UPstate to organize a discussion panel focused on this subject of “truth” and “identity”.  The panel included thought leaders from various spiritual disciplines: Hari Kaur Khalsa, Elena Brower, and Shaman Durek, with Alhia and Kyle Godfrey-Ryan as moderators.  Gerald Foster from WelcomeEarth was gracious enough to film the whole event.

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Here are the pieces and, at the end, my poem as a spoken word expression of the pieces:

The Art is the Heart

This last year I debuted my first art show.  On display were two heart responsive electronic pieces inspired by an experience I had at Burning Man.  Exploring the desert playa one night, I bumped into a small, golf cart sized art car covered in LED lights.  What was particularly notable about this vehicle was that it had a heart sensor that you could attach to your finger.  Once the sensor picked up your heart rate, the entire car would start pulsating with your heart beat.  It was deeply moving to observe my heart and my partner’s heart in this way.  I was inspired to explore the concept further on my own.  A few months later I did some research, bought all the electronics equipment I needed, and created my first heart responsive meditative mandalas.

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I’m fascinated with this idea of using external inputs to bring awareness to our internal landscape.  When someone initially plugs into one of these mandala pieces their first reaction is to tune into their own heartbeat to see if the LED pulsations are accurate.

Our heartbeat is ever present inside our chest.  From before we are born until we die it is there.  We never have to think about it, it just does its job.  Yet there is so much more to explore and understand.  Just on a sensory level, tuning into your heart, you can begin to feel the flow of blood throughout the whole body.  You become deeply present with yourself just by feeling the physical heart.

I believe that this is incredibly therapeutic.  It is a meditation unto itself.  And this is the vision behind the mandala pieces, that one might have an external visual cue to reflect their internal state.  As I continue to explore this work, I may try to make the LED colors responsive to changes in heart rate to put more emphasis on the bio feedback.  In the meantime, the lights just cycle through the color spectrum as they pulsate with the heart.  Here is a video of one of the pieces in action:

 

Holding Space for Learning and Practice

As I’ve deepened my meditation practice I’ve found the concept of holding space to be deeply transformative. I can describe holding space best as listening deeply and giving the other person room to express themselves. When I feel this quality of presence from another person, I am uplifted.

Holding space can be particularly powerful in communities of learning and practice. People hold space for each other and in that space they create a container for authenticity and mutual support. This is the intersection of individual expression and collective integration. By holding space for others we create space for openness. By cultivating openness we become more receptive. By becoming more receptive, we are able to learn better and understand more.

Transformative experiences happen when we find small groups of people that hold space for each other to practice and learn. Yet even in communities that share the same values, it can be hard to find people that share the same level of interest and availability as you do.

There may be people around you who share your values. These people might also want to learn and practice the same things that you do. How can you connect with those people to hold space and support each other?

Over the last year I have been exploring ways to make it much easier to connect people in mutually supportive ways. I’ve built a simple tool that lets members within a community self organize into small pods around a shared intention. My hope is to find ways to foster more peer to peer support and, in turn, offer people a direct experience of deep presence and genuine connection.

We have so much potential to uplift others, provide accountability, and share our inner wisdom for mutual benefit. Each of us carries a lifetime of experience to share as a lens on almost any subject. When we hold space for each other in this way, we can shift our energy from competition to collaboration. We can support each other in being, learning, practicing, or just about any sort of co-creation.

(Virtual) Reality is Empty

I recently watched Michael Abrash, the chief scientist at Oculus, give a talk at Facebook’s F8 Summit on “Why Virtual Reality Will Matter to You.”  Abrash goes pretty deep drawing parallels to The Matrix and quoting Morpheus:

“What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Michael’s talk revolves around the question, what is the difference between sufficiently advanced virtual reality technology and reality itself?  As human beings we innately believe that we have an accurate perception of the world around us.  But the reality is that our perception is based on limited sensory input.  All of our perceptions are based on signals from sensors on our eyes, our tongue, our ears, our nose, our skin, our organs, and throughout our body.  These signals are processed by the brain and interpreted as reality.  In a sense our mind is an inference machine.  We make meaning out of what we infer through the information collected by our senses.

Often our perceptual system has to make assumptions and sends its best guess to the conscious mind.  Given their direct experience, people are understandably certain about what they perceive.  However, although our perception of reality seems complete, it is, in fact, limited because what we perceive is limited by the scope of our awareness.  Take visible light for example, which accounts for a tiny sliver of the electro magnetic spectrum.

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Our experience of the visual world is governed by this tiny aspect of what we perceive through the eyes.  I think about how often I “judge a book by it’s cover,” judging the things around me by what I see.  Yet this is a tiny fraction of what’s actually there.

We construct our entire understanding of the world around us based on the data we get through our senses.  We interpret all sorts of complete experiences based on partial data.  Think of an animated flip book cartoon made up of hundreds of individual images rapidly passing over the screen to give the illusion of smooth motion.  We see all this data that comes in as complete, weaving an intricate picture of the world we experience.  But what’s underneath these sense impressions?  Can we separate the data to see it for what it is – a collection of individual input streams masking a deeper reality.  This is a common theme in Eastern philosophy, and the Bhagavad Gita speaks to the deluding nature of the senses often:

While seeing or hearing, touching or smelling; eating, moving about, or sleeping; breathing or speaking, letting go or holding on, even opening or closing the eyes, they understand that these are only the movements of the senses among sense objects. (5.8)

So, given the questionability of the information that our senses collect, what happens when you have a sufficiently sophisticated virtual reality system that directly emulates sensory input so accurately as to be indistinguishable from the real thing?  Does that, in fact, become the real thing?  Is there a point at which virtual reality ceases to be virtual?

Going back to the question that Morpheus asked – what is real?  At a certain objective level, everything physical is empty.  All matter is simply an ocean of atoms consisting of protons, electrons, and mostly empty space.  We look at something and we create meaning out of it.  What is a table?  A surface to eat and work on?  A piece of wood?  A collection of subatomic molecules held together by magnetic forces?

The table itself is just particles.  And when you look closely enough, even they break down into minuscule aspects of near nothingness.  Your mind creates the meaning of that table.  The Heart Sutra, considered to be the essence of Buddhist teaching, revolves around understanding this concept of emptiness:

Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.
The same is true with feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

Why is it so hard to perceive this aspect of reality for what it is? Because our entire experience of reality, and of ourselves, is based on our senses and our subsequent attraction to or aversion from what we sense.  Everything we perceive is in the mind, and it can be very hard to see outside of that construct.  We are what is being perceived thus we are unable to perceive what we are.  As Thich Nhat Hanh put so eloquently: “Form is the wave and emptiness is the water.”  From the perspective of the wave, it may be hard to perceive that it is, in fact, an expression of the ocean.

If the true nature of our reality is emptiness, then what difference does it make if we activate our senses through physical phenomena or virtual input?

I recently wrote about the relationship we have with ourselves, asking, *what* is having that relationship to self?  If everything is empty, then what is this that we are experiencing?  Somehow all this emptiness appears to be in relationship with itself in an infinite multitude of ways.  Our entire reality consists of relationships.

The table is also the tree that it came from.  It is the rain that helped grow that tree from seedling to oak.  It is the cloud that released the water for that rain.  It is the logger who cut the tree down.  It is everything that happened to the wood as it went from tree to table in your living room.  All of these aspects are in the experience of the table.  As I sit at this table, all of these aspects form the web of relationships that exist in my experience of the present moment.

How does virtual reality affect this chain of relationships?  Does it simply replace them with a different chain of digital relationships?  Is there something lost when we remove ourselves from nature?  Is a perfectly emulated virtual experience of a forrest the same as the real thing?  Somehow I feel that that deeper connection, of all the relationships that went into the tree might be missing – the earth, the roots, the wind, the rain, the clouds, the sunlight.  The elements that don’t just exist in that virtual moment but have worked in concert over time to have a relationship with me in this moment.  Can that chain of relationships ever be emulated to give the same feeling in one’s heart?

When it comes to VR, I am mostly left with unanswerable questions.  Can virtual reality help us more accurately perceive reality by training our senses in unique ways?  If I’m interacting in a virtual environment, how will my non-tangible senses like intuition be affected?  How will my relationship with real people be affected when I can step in to any virtual world and have ultra realistic fantasy experiences?  Is this a form of escapism, or simply the next step for humanity?

I am often confounded by what I see as the inevitable evolution of the human species – the integration of carbon and silicon.  We are already seeing the proliferation of prosthetic limbs that deliver functionality superior to natural limbs; human computer interfaces that plug directly into the brain; and deeply immersive virtual reality experiences that are only at the very beginning of their development.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that technology is only becoming smaller and humans are only becoming more and more dependent on it.  Eventually, we’ll surgically implant a “mobile phone” chip into a person that will interface with the visual cortex and allow you to surf the internet with your mind.

This doesn’t even seem that far fetched anymore and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw something like this within the next 50 years.  In the 1950s a room full of computers had less processing power than an iPhone.  I have no doubt that when such technology becomes available there will be many people happy to integrate themselves for the sake of convenience.

As we develop highly advanced VR, how will that affect our relationship with what we perceive as physical reality?  Is there a difference between virtual and physical when you have an interface that connects directly with the brain’s signal processing system?

I’m not sure I have a clear answer other than an intuitive aversion to the prospect of that level of technological integration.  I feel that VR brings a tremendous risk of further disconnecting people from each other.  Rather than connecting with real people, a person can immerse themselves in a world of fantasy relationships.

At the same time I can see that sophisticated VR can have far reaching implications and potential benefits for many aspects of our lives.  It can connect people in realistic ways that would never have a chance to meet otherwise.  It can completely revolutionize education and almost any kind of technical training.  It can provide people with safe environments to learn and grow.

As with most technological progress, it can really go both ways.  The ultimate decider is likely the level of consciousness on the part of the user.  One thing is certain though, the age of virtual reality has arrived and it is here to stay.

Gratitude is a function of mindfulness. When you are mindful and present you can cultivate gratitude for the experience that you are having regardless of what it is.  Each experience leads into the next. Thus even the most enjoyable experiences are products of the less enjoyable ones that proceeded them.

Co-creation as Relationship

What does co-creation mean? Does it mean actually creating a tangible project together? Does it mean holding space for each other’s projects? Does it mean sharing knowledge and resources? Does it mean actively supporting each other in some way? Maybe it means all of the above.

Perhaps the true litmus test for co-creative potential is the strength of relationship between members of a community. How open and vulnerable do they feel with each other? How much do the know about each other’s true aspirations? How well do they understand each other? How much goodwill is between them? How much commonality? In this context their creativity becomes a shared resource even if their labor does not.