You are standing in awe in front of a painting. Its varicolored being is overwhelming you. You are getting lost in this labyrinth of shapes and forms, until you are no more. And yet, you are more yourself than you have ever been before. If you have ever had this experience, then you know that art (of any kind) can induce meditation.
Of course, I am not the first one to say this; however, I will be the one to remind you. The Indian Philosopher Vallabhacharya argued that the ego can transcend through feelings (bhava – in simplified terms). More precisely: if you are gazing at a painting, it can arouse so much bhava in you that your ego does not exist anymore, but is entirely dissolved in feelings.
Aristotle argued in his aesthetical philosophy that tragedy (and hence, I would argue, also other types of art) can give us what he calls katharsis, a “purification of such emotions” and a “pleasurable relief”, occurring as we undergo the emotional states of pity and fear, which we are in turn able to judge and apply appropriately in real life.
Some even compared katharis to rasas (aethetical moods), which are again intimately linked to bhavas, although rasas comprise much more feelings than pity and fear (e.g humor and love – Hāsyam and Śṛngāram).
Aristotle’s theory is controversial. Yet, if we dare to combine it with Vallabhacharya’s thinking, it could actually enhance the idea. By submerging ourselves in a piece of art, we lose our ego in feelings and thus we experience relief. In addition, it is not (only) a purification of our emotions, but a purification of ourselves, who are being reminded – no matter how briefly – to exist without the ego.
The Schopenhauer cure
Some may argue that emotional meditation is not the right way to curb the ego, because emotional states are evoked by the ego and therefore are reinforcing it. If this is the case, there is still the Schopenhauer cure.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy is in many aspects similar to many Indian philosophies. For example, he argued that a major part of ourself is a will to live, which causes us constant pain through its desire. If we are audacious, we could compare it to the ego.
He also believed that space and time causes the “principle of individualization”, a maya, as a result of which we perceive each other as separate, even though everything is one underneath. This underlying unity is somewhat similar to the concept of Ātman.
According to Schopenhauer, through contemplation of a piece of art we are able to overcome maya. If one “abandons the entire power of his mind to the view, one entirely gets carried away, and lets the entire consciousness be filled… one altogether gets lost in that object, i.e. one forgets the very individual, his will”, then there is no perceived and perceiver anymore.
This state is what Ramana Maharshi calls jñāna, the inexistence of subject and object. The subject has become one with the object and the dividing dualism, causality, and the other hindrances on the path to truth vanish.
Georg Simmel summarized it as follows: “Therefore all egoism is lifted, because the self which could carry it is being sunk, with it all the wanting-to-have.” No more desire, solely being.
This method of contemplative mediation was oftentimes propagated by Jiddu Krishnamurti, who opined that “to observe with silent mind”, unprepossessed, is the true form of meditation. Unsurprisingly, Krishnamurti also pointed out that the will is the essence of desire and looked for a methodology to exist without it.
Depending on our philosophical disposition, we can argue that art is, either by means of feelings or contemplation (as in silent observation), a gateway to the ego-less sphere.
Perhaps, in times where apparently increasingly more people find it difficult to merely be, art could succor or even be, as Heidegger thought, the way out of the “crises of modernity”, by giving access to “truth”.
So next time bring your incense to the gallery, sit down in the padama position, and render homage to the Gurus of the brush, the pantheon of the pencil.