Nasruddin is considered the wise fool in Sufi traditions; stories about him offer us lessons on multiple levels. One of my favorite stories is about Nasruddin’s soup.
Once Nasruddin’s friend brought him a duck. They decided to make soup with it. They cooked the soup and sat and enjoyed it. After his friend left, Nasruddin put the soup in the refrigerator and went to bed.
The next day there was a knock on the door. “Who is it?” Nasruddin asked. “I’m a friend of the one who brought you the duck.” Nasruddin invited him in and looked at the soup. He put some more water in and cooked the soup. They ate and the visitor left. There was not much soup left, but Nasruddin put it in the refrigerator again.
The next day there was a knock on the door. “Who is it?” Nasruddin asked. “I am a friend of the friend of the friend who brought you the duck”. Nasruddin let him in and pulled the soup pot out of the refrigerator. There was almost nothing left of the soup. So now Nasruddin poured water in the pot, put it on the stove, and stirred what was in there. He then served the man a bowl from the pot. The man was furious. “What is this?” he said. “This tastes like hot water, there is no soup”. Nasruddin replied, “Just as you are the friend of the friend of the friend who brought me a duck, this is the soup of the soup of the original soup”.
The same thing applies to our internal experiences. If we trace them back towards the stillness from which they arose, we arrive at abstract, undifferentiated vibrations of what once, externally, had name, form, and meaning. Remove form, which is the outer manifestation of a vibration, and we still have name and meaning. We can still feel the vibration, know its name, and understand its meaning, but we do not have to give it the form we habitually recognize.
My Foursquare paintings make visible our internal vibrations before they manifest into form. We can see the vibrations as they are before we express them through our vehicles of mind and body. By the time we get to the word that expresses our feelings, we are at the soup of the soup of the soup.
Over twenty years ago, I began to play with dichotomies as tools for spiritual practice. From there, I developed a game using two dichotomies; they became foursquares, which I later renamed fourchotomies.
A fourchotomy begins with a quality that is either positive or negative and its opposite, which is also either positive or negative. So if I have the quality of “immobile”, which is negative, the positive opposite would be “agile”. I would then find the positive of “immobile”, which is “steadfast”, and the negative of “agile”, which is “erratic”. That is a fourchotomy.
The purpose of the game is to own and accept all four qualities. Using this fourchotomy, I ask myself a series of eight questions. “Am I immobile?” Yes or no. “Is that okay with me?” Yes or no. I ask myself these questions for all four qualities. When I finally have eight honest yeses ten out of ten times on a regular basis, I have freed myself from attachment to the qualities that make up this particular fourchotomy. Now I am free to express each quality appropriately.
As you can see, the four qualities in a fourchotomy are connected. They share in their vibration. That is why I use the same three colors plus white to make a painting of a fourchotomy.
|Immobile / stuck / inert||Agile / dynamic|
|Steadfast / committed||Erratic / flighty / capricious|
My artistic background is in dance, martial arts, and Chinese calligraphy. In all of these, you have to work at the vibrational level; if you operate at the surface, your work is ineffective. Each of these arts also contributed to my understanding of form, movement, rhythm, and space.
In 2011, having already taught painting to Jim Condron for many years, I translated my training into my own painting. I wanted to paint the forms I saw and felt within. I painted whirlwinds for a long time, because they expressed a certain vibration. My language evolved over the ensuing few years, but my expression always came from within. In 2015, I found a way to paint fourchotomies; I call those paintings Foursquares.
As some of you might have already realized, the principle behind Foursquares is a kind of synesthesia. What is felt as a vibration is given expression in color.
I use 10″ x 10″ wood panels. Over the years, I transitioned from using brushes to palette knives, but I always paint the way I did when I practiced calligraphy. This means that the surface I paint is flat on a table rather than propped up.
All four panels of each Foursquare are painted in one session. Before painting, I take anywhere from three or four days to a couple of weeks to sit with the vibrations of the fourchotomies. First, I discern the colors I will use—always three colors plus white. And because each of the qualities in a fourchotomy is connected with the other qualities, their vibrations are connected in some way. Therefore I continue to feel the vibrations of all four qualities. When ready to paint, I make sure I stay one-pointed on the vibration of the quality I am about to paint. I remain with that vibration and then go.
Out of pure stillness, vibrations emerge. By the time they manifest on the physical plane, they are the least subtle. What my Foursquare paintings are meant to express was conveyed in words centuries ago by the Taoist sage Zhuangzi describing the emergence of a human life:
[T]here was a time before there was a life. Not only was there no life, there was a time before there was a shape. Not only was there no shape, there was a time before there was energy. Mingled together in the amorphous, something altered, and there was the energy; by alteration in the energy there was the shape, by alteration of the shape there was the life.*
* Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters, translated by A. C. Graham, 123-4.
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