My trip along the 70th line of longitude is over and it’s time to consider it. Painting in the landscape has been great fun. Ecstatic, really. Using the word “Ecstatic” to describe a year of plein air painting may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the term is a fair approximation and it makes a useful bridge to other, similar experiences. Ecstasy is the experience of losing one’s boundaries. In the ecstatic moment, the self merges with what is outside of it. Think how one’s edges are lost at the moment of orgasm and one becomes briefly, but wonderfully, merged into the world of the sheets. Oddly, this moment is often described as a “loss of the self”, but perhaps it is more accurate to describe the experience as an “addition of the other”. In an ecstatic moment the little dams that hinder the flow of consciousness and turn it into an eddy of self-consciousness, are opened and one experiences the flood of the outside world as it passes through the body. I don’t think this experience is mystical; it most likely has to do with certain brain functions being inhibited and others excited. But most often it is a delightful state of being that can engender love for what is outside. Sex and spirituality are the best known pathways to this neural intersection of delight, but many other experiences, like witnessing the birth of a child, club dancing, and singing with abandon also qualify.
Ecstasy is not necessarily all pleasure, since pain can also pass through the body once the defenses are down. The “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” by Bernini is a great visualization of the complexity of the ecstatic experience. Teresa is in a swoon. As if a bolt of electricity has just passed, her body is limp and her gown is in a frenzy. A smiling angel delicately exposes her breast to a spear and her face shows the pain and pleasure of being wantonly open to its advance. Her eyes are shut, so she does not see. Instead, she inhabits the world at the atomic level, where the animate and inanimate are the same and she feels the orbit of every little electron.
Do I look like Teresa when I’m painting out of doors? There is a lot of comic potential here. Does my mouth hang open and my tongue wander from its mooring? Probably. Like Teresa, I feel excited and open and greedy to be filled up. When making a painting, I’m not very aware of observing the scene. Instead, the scene passes through me. Thinking is not interrupted by words. There is no lag time between the provocations of the outside world and the response of the brush and the knife. Stimulus and response become one thing and the experience obliterates linear time. Hours go by in a blink and the world does not feel separate from the self.
It is tempting to say that art making is the best way to have this satisfying experience and that it deserves an exalted place in the hierarchy of human activity. But this would be silly, since that argument would mostly reveal how one’s ego tends to evaluate its own experience as superior.
The ecstatic experience that I am trying to describe is worth considering, not because it is special, but because it is common. There are many ways to make time disappear, let the tongue loll about and send the eyes rolling back into the head. Science could help here by evaluating people as they engage in deeply absorbing activities. Does the brain light up similarly in a computer game designer who is writing break-through code for an exciting, new effect and a retired woman paddling a canoe on a quiet lake at sunrise? Does the brain map the same for an investment banker as she wires millions to start-up companies in Beijing, a Buddhist nun in prayer, and a country singer who feels the lament about which he sings? Although these examples veer between creative action and meditative repose, they are all moments of being plugged in, like Teresa.
The Teresa moment is a powerfully receptive state of mind that, if cultivated, could be very useful for addressing the politics of everyday living. What if the ecstatic experience was stripped of mystery and was understood as a biological event ¬– a mode of perception that is common to the species? What if this experience of wanton openness could be directed toward a new philosophy of ecology, replacing old policies of ecological dominance and separation with new policies of ecological exchange and permeability? What if heightened states of receptivity could help one see a face simply as a collection of colors, shapes and textures, rather than as an accretion of associations forged by cultural prejudices?
Painting along the 70th line of longitude this year, I’ve lived hours and hours of Teresa moments, and I’m convinced that the experience is more than an indulgence. It is a platform from which the world is felt as a profoundly integrated place, and a solid launch pad from which to jump into action.