by Soraya Peerbaye
In Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, Stephen Batchelor proposes that Buddhist teachings are less about something to believe in, as they are something to do. With that in mind, he lays out a collection of essays relating practice to different realms of daily life: “Awakening”, yes, “Anguish”, “Death”, but also “Friendship”, “Freedom”, “Culture.” In “Imagination”, he writes:
To dwell in unknowing perplexity before the breath, the rain, a chair is much the same as dwelling in unknowing perplexity before an unformed lump of clay, a blank sheet of paper, an empty computer screen. In both cases we find ourselves hovering on the cusp between nothing and something, formlessness and form, inactivity and activity. We are poised in a still, vital alertness on the threshold of creation, waiting for something to emerge (the next in-breath or the first tentative shaping of the clay) that has never happened in quite that way before and will never happen in quite the same way again.
Batchelor is writing about making art, of course, but I viscerally recognize the state he describes also from being in the theatre: looking, listening. “Unknowing perplexity…poised in a still, vital alertness on the threshold…waiting for something…that has never happened in quite that way before and will never happen in quite the same way again.” This, to me, is the act of witnessing performance.
We often speak of the practice of art. But witnessing art is also a practice: to stay is a practice; to wait; to not turn away in confusion, frustration, exasperation; to “dwell in unknowing perplexity.” Think of the phrase “to attend the theatre.” Attend: to direct one’s mind or energies, from the Old French, to expect, to wait for, to pay attention, and directly from tendere, to stretch. It has the notion of stretching one’s mind towards something. If you go further back you find the derivative tenet, to hold. It is active. It acquired a sense in the 14th century of taking care of, waiting upon. As in, attend to the dying. The word tenderness derives from the same root – “stretched” implying soft, easily injured.
Unknowing perplexity is one way of saying it; dumb is another. I remember feeling dumb when I first began to go the theatre; feeling dumbness as a kind of physical state, like the cold that paralyzes my face on a winter day; catching myself open-mouthed, leaning into my own face as though the experience of what I was seeing was actually stretched on my skin. Being inarticulate for a little while after. As I get older I am discovering that one can make a living being dumb: hence my current work in a dramaturgy. These days I feel I am a professional cloud-for-brains. I feel slow and soft. A snail comes to mind.
How do we stay? A snail shoots a dart, or gypsobelum, a long, calcareous, arrow-headed structure, into the body of another, in the middle of the mating ritual. Franco Boni at The Theatre Centre begins Q&A sessions with the audience by asking, “What pierced you?” Something pierces us, and our practice is not to flinch, but to stay. To allow ourselves to be pierced.
And here is another question: how do we venture? What makes us the eclectic person who goes to different spaces – theatres, galleries, cinemas, warehouses, lofts, underground bars, field lots, political demonstrations, university halls…for artistic experiences? We follow trails. We make connections – there’s the love dart again. Apparently snails shoot with “considerable inaccuracy” (Wikipedia): snails have “very simple visual systems.” Our connections might be far-flung, tentative, uncertain. Or they might be sharp, sure. They might go through vital organs. They might go through the other side of the body. Oh, and one more thing about snails: they are hermaphrodites, and some are sequential hermaphrodites: they bear the ability to change gender throughout their lifetimes. Can this be a metaphor for the way we adapt to metabolize experience, for the way we open different senses, different ways of giving or receiving?
One shouldn’t push the snail analogy too far; it gets a bit messy, as I can tell you having watched an hour or so of gastropod porn late at night on Valentine’s day to write this…
Attending art is a practice. It is a fairly strange thing to do, to leave your home past dusk, and take a streetcar to willingly sit in the dark with a roomful of strangers, or stand in front of a wall and crane one’s neck slightly upwards, and wait for something to occur. Watching a human body at a certain distance in uncertain light, straining your eyes to watch that body be eroded by shadow, fleshed out by light, this is a practice. Leaning towards silence and feeling it as palpable, feeling its resistance or its yielding, its give at the end as opens for applause. Feeling for the end, when the body disappears, or the energy of it expands, collides with us, encompasses us in clamour and brightness.
We practice staying. We practice unknowing. We practice estrangement. How do we know how to do this? Who teaches us?
This is an open question.