Marina Abramovic at the Serpentine Gallery
This Tuesday, August 5, there will be no Inquiry at Appamada. I will be teaching at the Cape Cod Summer Institute all week and Peg is away enjoying much-needed rest and connection with family in Chicago. I offer this somewhat lengthy piece to you as a personal reflection on my own Inquiry that occurred at the Serpentine Galleries in London’s Hyde Park this past Saturday, May 2. But first, some context for my experience.
As many of you know, I was asked to travel to London this past weekend to officiate at a memorial/funeral for one of my dear friends, students, and teachers, Carrie Tuke. Carrie was many things in this world, including a Hakomi trainer and therapist, an amazing yoga teacher, a fine friend to many of us, and a wonderful partner to Mark Gray, her husband. For some years, she worked at the Helen Bamber Foundation, an organization that offers “protection and practical support to survivors of human rights violations.” This is an eloquent description of their work you will find on their website. In truth, what it actually means is that Carrie worked with people seeking asylum in the UK, mainly women, who have been victims of trafficking, torture, and other forms of indescribable cruelty in other countries. Carrie was an elegant, courageous, generous, kind and uncompromising woman. I spoke about Carrie and Mark in our last Inquiry (July 29). I also posted the poems and marriage vows on my blog (www.flintsparks.org) as well as Appamada’s blog. The audio of the Inquiry will be posted once Peg and I are home.
On Friday morning, August 1, the chapel at Golders Green Crematorium was literally overflowing for Carrie’s service. Although hesitant at first, Mark was able to speak (with our friend Josh at the ready in case he could not make it through), as did her longtime yoga teacher, John. A lovely woman from the Foundation, TJ, spoke eloquently about the impact of Carrie’s work, and a fellow Hakomi trainer, Trudy, reflected on her amazing personhood and then read the poem, The Unbroken, which I included in last week’s Inquiry. Among the speakers, a musician friend, John, came forward with his saxophone and played an extended “C,” a note for Carrie. He invited us all to hum the note together. He then played a spirited and heartfelt piece filling the grand old chapel as we hummed along. When the ceremony was complete, we all exited to beautiful gardens behind the crematorium on a glorious sunny morning. Eventually we made our way to Hampstead Heath, a large and ancient park on one of the highest spots in London. Family, friends, colleagues, and clients enjoyed time, food and tea with each other at Kenwood House. And then the day was over.
While having tea that afternoon with those who had come to the service, I spoke with Josh and Trudy, the leaders of the Nothing Special sangha in Lancaster. They happened to mention that they had gone to an exhibit the previous day featuring a new work by Marina Abramovic. I was stunned. Abromovic is an artist of immense courage and creativity. Her last major piece at MOMA in New York, The Artist is Present, was incredible — she sat for three months, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, facing whoever came and sat before her. The trailer is linked above. To find that she had a new piece and that I might actually get to see her was astounding. The new piece at the Serpentine Galleries is titled 512 Hours. Here is a description in her own words which I would suggest you watch: 512 Hours. Just as I usually offer a brief reflection to begin our inquiry sessions, it is important to listen to Marina speak about directly and simply about this piece. In it you will hear things that are resonant with our Zen practice although this is an artistic experiment and performance, not Zen.
But, do imagine that she is describing an intensive meditation retreat. She says she begins with empty space. The doors open at 10 AM and close at 6 PM. The galleries are not open on Mondays. Every other day she is there. There are lockers in the outer entry area and each person is asked to surrender their watches, phones, and anything else that might connect them to the outside. Each person is given noise-canceling headphones to wear the entire time so they are immersed in total silence. She says, “They arrive in the space with nothing. I am there for them. They are my living material. I am their living material. And from this nothing, something may or may not happen. It’s a journey. It’s an experiment. I could succeed or I could fail. Let’s see what will happen.” The following is just a little of what happened for me. This is what it was like for me to come forward and “take the seat” as I ask you to do in Inquiry each week.
I was accompanied that day by a friend, Justin, who had been a Hakomi student in Sheffield and who is currently a Principal Lecturer at the Westminster Centre for Resilience at the University of Westminster in London. We found an available locker, unburdened ourselves of things, and received our headphones. Everything went silent and we entered the space. There were three large, white, museum-like rooms. The central room in which we first entered had a low riser (maybe a foot high) in the center, shaped somewhat like a cross. There were a few people standing in stillness at various places in the little “stage.” People would come and go. There was a row of about 10 chairs along the back wall around which you enter and leave, and these were filled with people simply sitting in stillness.
Along the other three walls were small tables, about the size of an old TV tray, with a simple chair at each table. On the table was a pile of mixed uncooked rice and lentils. There was a small stack of white paper and a pencil. People were sitting and counting, sorting, or arranging the piles of rice and lentils.
In the room to the right there were a number of cots, arranged randomly. Participants would lie down and an assistant would tuck them in, elegantly and gently repeating the same motion over their faces as they were invited to close their eyes; a very tender gesture. Each person could stay as long as they wanted. Sometimes you could barely make out snoring in the muted silence.
The room to the left was primarily for what I would call walking meditation. People would do very slow walking from one end of the room to the other, turn around and repeat the path. On one wall there were more chairs with saturated colored squares on the wall in front of each chair — red, yellow or blue — about two feet square. This is where I started, sitting in front of a deeply royal blue square, slipping into a familiar space of zazen, staring at the wall. I felt at home. Behind me people were walking, just as they do during an open period of zazen. Only there was one important difference. When I arrived and say down, Marina was walking with one woman, holding her hand, as they very intentionally moved together slowly across the room with everyone the others. She remained in that room for some time, tenderly releasing one person and then connecting with another. As one woman stood still at the end of the room waiting to walk, Marina came extremely close to her and it appeared that she simply smelled her. Other participants would sometimes join each other, holding hands or walking together closely. Eventually, they would part.
Only in retrospect did I realize that I began with sitting and walking, entering this ambiguous and highly charged space, in ways that were familiar to me. Safety first. Habits organize experience. After sitting for awhile, I returned to the room with the busy bees sorting and counting grains of rice and lentils and did what I also do well — I went to work. Another safe haven. Another habit highlighted. When an assistant silently gestured for me to take a seat I opened one ear of my headphones for her to suggest that I might count the grains of rice. I sat for some time totally immersed in my task, making hash marks in the classic clumps of 5, covering the page, all for no reason other than to engage wholeheartedly in the task.
Once I felt like it was time to do something else, I could see that Justin was sitting in the line of chairs in the central room. I walked up onto the riser and stood in silence and stillness for just a few minutes and then the chair next to Justin became empty, so I sat down next to him. I immediately and gently leaned into him. Our arms and shoulders touched. It was very powerful to feel the simple, warm proximity of another in the deep silence, surrounded by so many people. We sat together for a while, then moved on, exploring the rooms and coming together again shortly to gesture silently that it was time to go. We exited, took off our headphones, retrieved our belongings from our lockers, and walked out into Hyde Park.
But, as I was leaving, I found that my locker was blocked. Marina had followed a pair of women out of the performance space (she broke the rules?) and had her headphones off and was talking quietly to them (more broken rules!). My guess is that this was a mother and her daughter. The mother was elderly and in a wheelchair. Marina had spent some time with her in the performance/practice space making sure she could experience what it had to offer. She was apparently seeing her out and appeared engaged with her in a very kind and generous way. They shifted slightly so I would get to my locked but we did not talk (I keep the rules!!).
This is a brief narrative of what happened on the outside with some references to what I was beginning to detect on the inside. If you are still reading this long account at this point, I will now say a few more things about what happened on the inside. This furthered my “Inquiry” and this is more of my sheepish confession — my avowing of what emerged in that space of “nothing.”
First of all, just like every new student, I wanted to be chosen. I wanted the famous artist who I admire to walk with me, to see me, to hold my hand, to do anything that would indicate that I was chosen or special or even there. I didn’t actually think these things explicitly at first, but they were there, lurking under the surface, and the longer I remained in the container of the space, the louder they became in the profound silence. I even wanted her assistants to be kind to me like they were with others, ushering them to a chair, onto the stage, or taking them hand-in-hand to walk for awhile. The space and the energy revealed the primal, unrelenting longing to be chosen. I did not interact with Marina, she never moved toward me, no assistant did anything except guide me to count the rice, and I never did lie on the beds. Why lie down? Isn’t there always something to do, and how was I going to “get somewhere” or attract my longed-for connection by lying down and resting? I pushed myself to continue. More habit in action, relentlessly expressing itself in the ongoing unfolding of experience.
I was being softened by the experience — opened and tenderize. Then came the shame. As all of this began to reveal itself, not only my totally predictable habits, but also the underlying child-like motivations, I felt incredibly vulnerable and tender. This is what I see in your eyes when you come up in Inquiry or sit in practice discussion with me. Tears came to my eyes as I sat with my friend Justin and simply watched the others. I could see everyone else doing whatever they were doing, propelled by whatever habits of conditioning motivated them, all moving or standing, sleeping or walking, working diligently for no purpose, touching each other shyly, hoping and longing, and I would assume, creating endless stories about it all just as I am now. And this is how it is all the time, with everyone. This is what I see as I sit and look out as we sit together in the zendo. This is what you bring to me as we sit with our small groups in practice discussion, or gather in Inquiry and watch the revelation of each person’s tender heart and questioning mind. The beauty of a meditation intensive, and this particular artistic experiment, is that they both offer the kind of space in which we get to see it all, to inquire deeply, to turn towards it all instead of turning away, and when we do turn away, we get to learn more about what we are turning from and what we are turning towards. Ultimately, nothing is hidden. All that is required is that we are given forms as opportunities — zendo forms or artistic gallery forms – and then to surrender ourselves to them so we can experience surrender itself, the only entrance into grace. And when it is necessary, we break the forms, because mindful care sometimes requires that we make conscious decisions to step aside and meet someone who needs us in a way that is fresh and completely now. This intimacy deepens the waking, the opening, the learning, and the increasing willingness to face what is.
We start with nothing. Through shared practice we decide to be there for each other. We are living material for each other, always. Something may or may not happen. But without a practice of this “nothing” we will never understand the “great matter” of birth and death. Tenderized by Carrie’s death, being greeted intimately by so many grieving friends, holding the space for a powerful service, weary from travel, I entered the Abromovic experience raw, shaky, and grasping. In that space I encountered primitive human longing, real fear, immense peace, cutting shame, profound compassion, and simple curiosity.
Marina says at the end of her description of 512 Hours, “This is the journey. This is the experiment. I can succeed or I can fail. Let’s see what will happen.” My journey these past few days has clearly revealed some real regrets about my failures over these 62 years alongside deep gratitude for what could be thought of as my successes during that time. Either way, this is my journey, irrevocably intertwined with yours. This is the experiment of simply living a life — my life, our life — life. Remember the line from the Lotus Sutra, “Only a buddha and a buddha can understand it.” Let’s see what will happen.