Taking Flight


Small Point, Maine

Angeles Arrien assembled The Four Fold Way after spending many years living with indigenous cultures as a cultural anthropologist. She observed that these non-first world cultures actually did a better job of offering their residents a way of life that has more access to joy and happiness than ours.

In case you are not familiar with it, here are Arrien’s four tenets:

Show up and be present.
Pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.
Speak your truth without blame or judgment.
Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome.

I have been carrying these four simple guidelines in my back pocket for 25 years. All are useful, but from time to time one goes neon and starts flashing.

Resonance is another word for “pay attention to what has heart and meaning for you.” And that’s the zone I am most drawn to right now. What catches my eye and mind? Where does my boat drift? Who is vibrating in a way similar to me? How good am I at sensing that alignment?

What’s more, it is clear to me that a wide range of topics and people can share a similar throughline, a “deep state” connectedness.

For example, the last few books that have fallen into my lap have more in common than you might guess. Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALS, and Maverick Scientists are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal focuses on advances in psychology, neurobiology, technology and pharmacology to harness new levels of consciousness. The authors explore the link between the “flow” states typically associated with artists and athletes, contemplative and mystical states sought by seekers and spiritual teachers, and the psychedelic states found through hallucinogens. (Kotler and Wheal have even estimated the size of what they term the “Altered States Economy!”)

This passage, quoted in the book from author Robert Kegan, captures a core insight:

You start…constructing a world that is much more friendly to contradiction, to oppositeness, to being able to hold onto multiple systems of thinking…This means that the self is more about movement through different forms of consciousness than about defending and identifying with any one form.

I know what that is.

A second book is Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean by Jonathan White. It was a perfect companion during my stay on the beach at Small Point, Maine where the tidal variations are immense. That is a beach that completely disappears twice a day.

As White astutely notes about his own interest in this topic:

I knew the moon had something to do with it, but what?…The more I read, the more complex and mysterious and poetic the subject became. I learned, for example, that planetary motion, which governs the tides, is not at all simple or regular. It’s full of eccentricities. The sun, moon, and earth don’t orbit in perfect circles. At times they’re closer to one another and at times farther away. They speed up and slow down. They wobble and yaw and dip and veer, and each time they do, it translate into a tidal event on earth.
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There are hundreds of these eccentricities, each calling out to the oceans—some loudly, some faintly, some repeating every four hours and others every twenty thousand years.
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How the oceans hear these heavenly calls is another story. Some oceans hear only a single voice; others hear a chorus…The Atlantic is strongly tuned to the moon; the Pacific is tuned more to the sun…I have met dozens of accomplished oceanographers who flatly admitted that the tides were too complex for any one person to fully understand.

This harkens back to Timothy Morton‘s Hyperobject conundrum: We humans live inside worlds and constructs that are simply unknowable. (For more about my ongoing interest in Morton, click here.)

A third book may seem far afield from these two, but it is also of a kind: Great Works: Encounters with Art, by Michael Glover. Glover is a poet who writes art criticism for The Independent. But this book, like both mentioned above, is a disruptor of the prevailing order, another way of questioning the current ways of being, seeing, viewing, knowing.

James Bradburne, director of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, puts Glover’s gifts in perspective:

After decades of paying close attention to art, Michael has developed a keen eye, a sharp tongue and the instincts of a museum professional. With other critics, this intimacy can become a vice, as the critic’s eye is no longer in tune with that of the reader. The trained eye is often blind to the beauty the naive eye still sees. This is where being a poet helps, with poetry’s relentless discipline of returning to the startling freshness of the world. Nelson Goodman once called the museum “an institution for the prevention of blindness,” which is as good a definition as I can propose…The poet is anything but blind.

Glover writes epigrammatic, salient responses to works of art from every era. These essays are short, personal, well informed and alive. Glover is resonating with each particular work of art, and he has the wordsmithing prowess to share that resonance with us. And his titles are engaging and singular: An Overwhelming Interior World of Troubling Tunnelling (Richard Serra), The Sweet, Self-Delighting Floatingness of It All (Paul Klee), or The Indomitable Solidity of the Thing Itself (John Constable.)

I love Glover’s way of being with a work of art. His careful looking is reminiscent of my conversations with artist, friend and visual language expert Karen Fitzgerald who knows firsthand about the power of deep looking.

And speaking of Klee’s Bird Garden:

This world of Klee’s has removed all the tetherings, and we feel ourselves floating with it. The fact that at least one of these birds is walking upside down makes us feel that at any moment this painting could spin away from us, at first rather slowly. And when that happens, we will surely feel ourselves rather inclined to take flight too.

Yes to that.


Bird Garden, by Paul Klee

3 Comment

  1. Thank you, Deborah. I’m going to copy those four guidelines down myself and keep them on my desk, where I can see them often.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      They wear well.

  2. Oh, what a joy to read essays and responses to art that are “short, personal, well informed and alive.”

    Thank you for book suggestions (yet again!)

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