September 2, 2010

Can the Arts Make us Enlightened?

Bearing Witness to Auschwitz, Homelessness and Media.

Zen Masters whack students with sticks or unexpectedly shout or find other ways to push the students into Not-Knowing.

Tracks leading into Auschwitz death camp.

Once we are not longer stuck in our comfort zone, we can Bear Witness to what’s really happening around us (to use the terminology of the Zen Peacemakers).  Zen Master Bernie Glassman innovated other “plunges” that achieve the same thing, by leading retreats on the streets or at Auschwitz.  These practices are part of a path of spiritual awakening, helping us let go of attachments and realize the oneness of life.  What would a plunge look like in the arts?

As I was thinking of my Elephant Journal posts and our website, I wondered: how can I create a plunge experience online? That is, an experience that overwhelms the sense of business as usual, knocks the viewer out of their comfort zone and puts them into direct contact with something in front of them. Or as we say at Zen Peacemakers, puts them in a state of Not-Knowing, so that Bearing Witness can take place? Of course, there is nothing like actually being on the streets, or at Auschwitz or in Rwanda (where Fleet Maull started leading plunges) … but are there proxies in media?

Indeed, isn’t Bearing Witness one of the primary objectives of all art? Isn’t it the goal to get the viewer to identify with a character and get the audience so wrapped up in the story that they forget they are watching a movie or reading a book, as they plunge into the constructed world and go through the emotions of the character? Are the techniques for achieving this similar to the techniques of the Zen teacher or the Bearing Witness Plunge?

At Auschwitz, you are overwhelmed with horror and sadness as you witness relics of a ghastly scale of cruelty. On street retreats, you experience aspects of the city that you are so used to overlooking and ignoring. What happens in the arts? Can that experience be created online?

What are the elements of a plunge? Defying expectations, direct and strong appeals to the emotions that bypass the head and go directly to the heart… what else? In media, and especially on the web, this means avoiding distractions that remind the viewer that they are viewing media and not experiencing something directly. Of course, the web is different. Most web site are non-fiction resources intended to convey information and not story-telling devices. Or are they?

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