On Fear and Art

Hsia-Jung Chang, guest speaker
Society for Ethical Culture, 4450 Fieldston Road, Bronx, NY
Sunday 1 October 2006
Hsia-Jung and the Ghost
Fear and Art and their relationship to each other is a topic I have been thinking about for the last 5 years or so. I'm happy to have the opportunity to share my thoughts with you today.
In the present atmosphere of continuous Fear, I would like to present Art as the antidote.
Fear is a state of disharmony of the mind/body/soul unity. Art is a process which reunifies all in harmony.
On September 11, 2001, I was in Taiwan for work. My return flight was scheduled for September 12. There were no flights to the US for what at the time was an indefinite duration, so I was forced to take a vacation. I went to a beautiful valley in Hualien, Taiwan, where the entire valley was marble stone. The valley was full of beautiful trees, lots of singing birds, all sorts of strange beetles in bright colors, huge butterflies, graceful waterfalls, and a light blue stream, so clear that you could see the scales on the small school of silver fish darting around in the water.
My mind was filled with uncertainty about NYC, about the US, about the state of the world. Would there be more attacks? Will the US be invaded? Who are these people? I imagined the worse, maybe the outbreak of WW III? Scenes from the television broadcast replayed in my mind, and my vision of the future was of death, destruction, and panic everywhere.
I strayed from my thoughts momentarily and looked around me. It was a beautiful clear day. The sunlight reflected by the white marble valley and the clear stream made the valley seem like one of those depictions of heaven, or paradise one sees in the movies. There were fish darting about my feet, which were partially submerged in the clear cool stream. "Fish!" I said, "Why are you darting around so happily? Don't you know many people have died in a most violent manner? And maybe many more will die because of this one event? How can you swim around as if nothing has happened?"
And the fish kept swimming, only more happily, and with their body language they told me, (well, not really me, since they were completely oblivious to me and my brooding and my fears), but with their bodies they said "LIFE!!! LIFE!!! We are living!!! How incredibly wonderful every turn is for me in this beautiful clear water? My body and will are one, I speed up, slow down suddenly, weave around these feet. I can do whatever I would ever want to do with this fish body. This is life. I'm alive! I love life! "
Their body language was so strong, so eloquent, that I got completely caught up in their darting about, their happiness and harmony with everything around them. And suddenly all I could feel was love. Love coming from the fish, from the water that supported them, from the bugs, from the trees, from the valley. And no matter how I tried to think again about the destruction and death, all I could feel was love.
It was a very strange moment. How can paradise and hell co-exist simultaneously? I started to wonder if I should be feeling guilty when all these people suffered and all I feel is love and the joy of life. But then, should the fish give it all up? Give up life and love for destruction and pain? Do they not have the right to live their life fully, as they are doing? Destruction and pain IS the absence of life and love. So if I have life and love, and I feel guilty and give it all up for destruction and pain, am I not just adding to the destruction and pain?
If we all keep adding, then the scale will tip to one side, and there will be a void of life and love all together, and destruction and pain will be the norm. Well, then no one will be shocked anymore by the news of any killing, and it will all just be normal. "No," I said to myself, "I have to add to the other side of the scale, more love, more joy...how?"
The Random House College Dictionary defines fear as:
A distressing emotion AROUSED by an impending pain, danger, evil, etc., or by the ILLUSION of such. It is a state of condition, rather than an event.
Hm...It is a passive state.
What are some ways of coping with fear? Ways other than denial, aversion, and hatred - non of which seems to get rid of it.
I'd like to share with you a story about my best friend's son Alexander. When Alexander was just learning to walk, and run a bit, his forehead had a fast and furious close encounter with the corner of the coffee table. His mother said that he cried very loudly in pain. But after the pain subsided, he went back to the coffee table, walked gingerly up to the corner, slowly and gently touched his forehead to the corner again. Instead of developing fear and aversion for the coffee table, or for running, he had learned his first lesson about velocity by reliving the event in a controlled environment.
This is good practice for negating fears in life, but maybe not ideal for the biggest fear of all, the fear of death. After all, it's difficult to get a second chance, at least with the same body, if one is not careful in rehearsal...
There is a meditation technique used by yogis and by practioners of Tibetan Buddhism that addresses the fear of death. One imagines the self, dead in a cemetery, though not necessarily buried. Step by step the decay of the body is visualized: thousands of maggots consume the flesh of the body until there is only bone left, then the bone disintegrates into dust so that there is no more hint of body form, then a wind comes and scatters the dust in all directions so that there is no one space which the body occupies.
This meditation teaches one impermanence, and acceptance of the inevitability of death. By going directly to the end point, one is no longer in anticipation of impending death, fear lessens.
Another way is to visualize oneself as something really scary, change one's own self image. So that if someone gives you an evil snicker, you respond with a huge monstrous growl. Here is an image of a Vajra with blue/black skin, wild hair, huge bulging eyes, sharp teeth in a growl/smile, wearing a long snake around it's body as an ornament, with fire all around him that burns all obstacles of ignorance and fear. The painting of the deity is supposed to help you visualize yourself in this form, thus changing the image of yourself, to help you know that your soul is like this Vajra, indestructible.
Kili Kala
The body reacts to fear in many ways. Sever and prolonged stress stimuli can cause neurosis, which takes on various forms of misalignment and disharmony in the body. From the perspective of the Chinese medicine tradition, one way to counter fear is to change one's body:
In Yi Zong Bi Du, a Chinese Medicine book from the Ming Dynasty, there is a small chapter on fear with the various possible organs of origin listed as such:
Jing qi all gathered only at the kidneys = fear. Blood is insufficient in the liver = fear (liver is the son of kidneys, if the water element is strong, then the gall bladder is stronger, (gall bladder is associated with bravery here, just as in the old phrase, "he has the gall to do ___" ) if the water is deficient, then the blood is weak and fear and timid becomes the character. Fear can also be caused by stomach malady. Over-worry of the heart (in this tradition closely associated with mind) can also damage the spirit.
Yellow Emperor's Canon on Internal Medicine, second book, Chapter 50 - Lun Yong, (On Braveness) Quoted from the China Science and Technology Press edition.
(This book is written as an interview between the Yellow Emperor and a couple of Medical experts from around 2500 B.C., although some historians suspect the book was compiled by a scholar just around 2000 years ago. The interview had just established the following: Some brave men can endure pain, some cannot. Some timid men can endure pain, some cannot.)
YE: I hope to know what causes the difference of bravery and timidity.
Shaoyu: For a brave man, his eyeballs are bogging deeply, his eyesight is firm when seeing things, his eyebrows are long and erecting, the textures of his muscles are coarse and striate, his heart is normal, his liver is large and firm, his gallbladder is full with bile and the bile is intense, when he gets angry, his breath is plenty and his chest is expanding, his gallbladder is horizontal when his liver is lifted, his eye sockets are busting and his eyes are flashing, his hairs are standing up and he has green complexion. These are the reasons of why he is a brave man.
YE: I hope to know the conditions for a timid man.
Shaoyu: For a timid man, his eyes are large but not bogging deeply, he often turns his eyes with fright, the textures of his muscles are loose and flaccid, his sternal xiphoid process is short and small, his liver is small and the bile in his gallbladder is not full and lacking, his intestine and stomach are rather straight with less curves, the locations under his ribs are empty, his liver energy is not substantial, when he is in a rage, his energy of anger cannot fill his chest, even when the energies of the liver and the gallbladder rush up, they will fall into decline immediately, as his energy is deficient, he can hardly sustain the anger long. These are the reasons why he is a timid man.
YE: When a timid man has drunk the spirit his condition is about the same with a brave man when he gets angry, which one of the viscera causes it?
Shaoyu: The spirit is the essence of the water and cereals, and the property of the juice fluid of the matured cereals is light and swift, when it enters into the stomach, it will cause distention of the stomach, besides, it will cause the energy of the gallbladder to run amuck. By this time, the timid man seems similar with the brave man, but when he recovers from drunkenness, he will regret. A timid man is similar with a brave man after drunken, but he knows not what to do, it is called perplexion after drunken.
[Show Vajra picture again] So this visualization is not only psychologically empowering, but also has physical benefits. Facial expressions and body postures directly related to energy flow in the viscera. Fear is an emotion, which is felt with the body.
When I got back to NYC on September 15, 2001, it was immediately evident to me that my counter-fear plan was not going to be easy. No, the scale had been tipped way to one side, and people were all contributing more to the pain and destruction by focusing their mind only on that, and on FEAR! Fear had taken over, people were no longer logical, no longer listened to their inner voices of ethics and morals and reason. They listened to the radio, and TV, and wished for someone to guide them through it all. What next? They longed for violent retaliation, so that they can kill some of this nagging fear that haunted them from the moment they woke and turned on the morning news, until they took the late night news into their nightmares. The subway rides were telling. Judging by the dark circles around everyone's eyes, no one was sleeping for those first two weeks.
I began to take notice of how people dealt with fear. It was easy to spot those people in the subways and amongst my friends. I began to notice that the most successful ones often use an art form or another to express themselves. I don't mean that they were all artists by profession, but they all made art, whether it was in the way they prepared their food, told a good joke, did their hair, matched their outfit, interacted with their children, it was all art.
The Random House College Dictionary defines art as:
skill in conducting ANY human activity. Also as quality, production, expression, or realm of what is beautiful, or of more than ORDINARY significance.
"Ordinary significance" is a subjective term. Fish for instance, sunrises, children's laughter, bird songs, the smell of rain, paychecks, etc. Many of these are ordinary to us, common everyday things. Yet for many people in the world who live in a continued state of crisis, ironically, fish happily swimming in clear water can be of extraordinary significance.
I read in the NYTimes last week that Leonardo Da Vinci thought VISION - sapere vedere or "knowing how to see" - was the most valuable sense. For us, the carcass of a bird is a common sight on the streets of NYC. For Da Vinci, the wing of a dead bird can help him design a flying machine. "Knowing how to see" is potentially one of the most powerful attributes of the human mind. Once we have a vision, we are able to process that vision through a unity of mind/body/soul to create art. With "vision" we can visualize concepts as mind-blowing as infinity. We are able to contain both heaven and hell simultaneously within ourselves, with the (sometimes overlooked) choice of traveling from one to another in the blink of an eye.
Once having recognized that choice, many of those whom we recognize as famous artists will chose to travel to hell, or the darker side of human existence, in a contained and controlled environment which they create through art.
Dante's Divine Comedy is a great example. How many of you have read this? I have been reading the Inferno. It is significant that instead of writing a journey for a fictitious character, Dante puts himself through hell. It is also of more than "ordinary significance," that at the lowest level of hell, he continues to descend through the center of the earth, where descend becomes ascend, and he comes out the other side into sunlight again.
Once an artist has shown us his or her vision, we in turn share that vision. And thus art begets more art.
Franz Liszt - some had nick-named Mephistopheles in Cossocks, lived a life which seemed full of contradictions. His original musical forms depend greatly on the simultaneity of the damned and the divine. He wrote a Sonata based on Dante's Divine Comedy, which I will be playing later today. My colleagues will be playing other Liszt's works of devilish difficulty on the same program. Hope you can all join us at 3 pm.
Hope also to see you all on October 22, 2006. Please come celebrate Halloween with fantastic music based on dark poetry about dreams, water nymphs, imps, heaven and hell. It also happens to be Franz Liszt's 195th birthday.
Thank you for listening so artfully.
©2006 Mandala Studio
The happy fish of Hualien
This portion of the talk was left out of the talk due to time constraints. It was taken from the Clinic of Traditional Medicine.
Modern Chinese remedies for Neurosis. Neurosis is caused by long-term mental stress which results in imbalance of excito-inhibitory process of the cerebral cortex. Patients get excited or fatigued easily, and are frequently accompanied with various forms of somatic discomfort.
Stagnation of Liver - qi
Emotional depression, doubting mania, anxiety, vertigo, blurred vision, fullness in the abdomen, eructation, anorexia, feeling of oppression in the chest, hypochondriac pain, irregular menstruation, reddish tongue with whitish fur, taut and thready pulse.
Therapeutic Principle: Dispersing depressed liver - qi to relieve emotional depression.
Hyperactivity of Fire due to Yin Deficiency
Anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, tinnitus, feverish sensation in the palms and soles, dry mouth, nocturnal emission, spermatorrhoea, premature ejaculation, palpitation, amnesia, soreness of waist, red tongue with yellowish fur, thready and rapid pulse.
Therapeutic principle: Nourishing yin to clear away pathogenic fire.
Deficiency for the Heart and Spleen
Dreaminess and being easy to wake, palpitation, amnesia, fatigue and weakness, anorexia, sallow complexion, pale tongue with thin whitish fur, thready and weak pulse.
Therapeutic Principle: Invigorating the heart and spleen.