Visual Pollution. ~ Dr. Bernie Weitzman.

Via elephant journal
on Jan 31, 2011
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We’re honored to have this guest post from Dr. Bernard Weitzman, a psychologist and awfully smart, kind gentleman. ~ ed.

Cleanliness is Mindfulness?

On the intersection of contemplative practice, eco-responsibility, an elegant home & sane society.

Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche characterized the refuge vow (the vow one takes to become a Buddhist) as leaving home—becoming a refugee.

This metaphor has many meanings and implications.  Anything to which we cling—any favoritism, any us/them points of reference, any belief system, family, community or relationship is a way of trying to secure ground.  Such ground is what is meant by “home” in this context.  We cause suffering for ourselves and others by clinging—by our desperate search for comfort, security and stability—our dream of a nest in which we can kick back. We imagine that if we could find such security, we could let go of the anxiety that haunts and torments us.

Becoming a refugee is acknowledging our understanding of this dynamic and vowing to give up our addiction to nesting. Ultimately we discover that this very world with which we always struggle to escape is our true home.  In doing so, in giving up our struggle, we have repossessed our birthright.  It is traditionally said,

“And so ends the journey which need not have been undertaken.”

The pollution that is poisoning our world, destroying its vulnerable life forms, depleting its resources and defacing its natural beauty is a graphic expression of alienation of people from home—from this earth.  Generally, people keep their homes neat and clean.  Often there is considerable care given to making home welcoming and beautiful.  On the other hand, when people feel alienated from the places they live, they tend to throw their garbage in the streets, break windows and deface property.

Places that are trashed in these ways feel less and less like home — people become less caring about them and they get worse.  It has been documented, for example, over and over again, that if broken windows in abandoned buildings are fixed, the new breaking of windows diminishes.  If graffiti are painted over, there is less likelihood of new graffiti in that neighborhood.

Trungpa, Rinpoche suggested that we always keep our home “ready for a visit by the queen.”  I tried it—and doing so has had a profound impact on my life.  A number of times I have suggested to a patient (in my work as a psychotherapist) that bringing order into the household might be helpful for all concerned.  The result has sometimes been surprisingly profound, particularly in the long run.  If we are going to succeed in restoring sanity and decency to our society, the places people live have to come to feel welcoming to their inhabitants—people need to see this world as “home.”

Visual pollution is just one case of sensory pollution.  For example, in most environments it is quite difficult to find a quiet place to sit and read, or to just enjoy the sounds of the natural world. In NYC, horn honking, garbage trucks, boom boxes…are almost always audible and, in my view, could well be called “auditory garbage.”  Sitting on the deck of my summer home, situated in a remote woodland on Cape Cod, I can frequently hear traffic, or the voices of distant neighbors.  During a retreat in a tent at Karme Choling, I was able to hear the sounds of trucks, far in the distance.  I could hear the endless shifting of gears and roaring of the engines as the drivers negotiated the mountainous terrain.  A single truck might be audible for half an hour or longer. Auditory pollution is as prevalent and as powerful as visual pollution.

However, beyond the pollution of the sensory world is the growing ecological disaster we are witnessing.

Visual pollution has been the focus of this discussion because vision is, in dharmic terms, the most highly charged of the senses.  It is the most finely discriminating, the most finely textured and is our most detailed sensory access to the world.  When people use sound to help them ignore the visual world, they are reacting to visual pollution.  The more visually polluted the environment, the more likely you are to see people with ear buds—listening to music or a book—as they walk down the street.

Because of the intensity of the impact of the visual world on us, cleaning up visual pollution may be a place to start in trying to move our society in the direction of decency and sanity. Although the enormity of the larger environmental disaster we are facing must be directly addressed, at the same time, a gradual approach, working with the senses that are most compelling to people and working up towards the monumental ecological challenges we face might have a constructive impact.

If people begin to feel that this world is their home, our motivation to clean up the larger challenges will, I believe, grow.


Bernie Weitzman is in private practice as a psychotherapist in NYC. He became a student of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche in 1972, and has taught at Karme Choling and at the New York and Philadelphia Shambhala Centers.

When the Buddha said that for every person who seeks the truth, a unique path must be found, he formulated the basic principle of contemplative psychotherapy. Similarly, Carl G. Jung said that a new psychology must be created for every patient. Grounded in this view, contemplative psychotherapy recognizes the inherent wisdom and sanity of all human beings and seeks to support the dignity, intelligence, and compassion that are innate in all of us.

By identifying the basic sanity and intelligence, hidden in our confused moments, we find the strength and courage to work with ourselves with sympathy and gentleness. Respect is fundamental for attitudes of spiritual aspiration, and for views grounded in science, reason, or the world’s non-spiritual philosophies.

Contemplative development, which involves the deepening of one’s intimate and direct knowledge of one’s self, the world, and others, opens the heart and allows innate wisdom and compassion to flourish. This is the goal of contemplative psychotherapy.




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15 Responses to “Visual Pollution. ~ Dr. Bernie Weitzman.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Waylon Lewis and megan griswold, Red Fox. Red Fox said: Visual Pollution. ~ Dr. Bernie Weitzman. […]

  2. Kathy Skaggs says:

    A very important topic, but I have to raise an eyebrow at including the sounds of our neighbors talking in a description of "auditory pollution." Once again, humans are being seen as somehow separate from the "natural" world and its sounds. Why is the sound of my human neighbors talking pollution and the sound of my bird neighbors is not? I think our discussion has to be more nuanced than humans and things created by humans bad (pollution) and non-human living things and non-living things not created by humans good.

  3. Ellen Pearlman says:

    I am very shocked at the use of graffiti art to discuss this situation. As a native New Yorker, Bernie should know better. It smacks of class and race innuendos and implies that tagger's are somehow "degraded" instead of launching an art form heard round the world and adored and emulated. To call it "visual pollution" is the most absurd thing I have every heard, sound like something from the Politbureau. When grafitti art was first introduced into China, to counter Communist party propaganda, no one knew what to make of it, and the first artist to emulate it is now a multi-millionaire because of it. In terms of "auditory pollution" maybe he should deal with the sound experiments of John Cage, and his and Merce Cunningham's view of their "auditory pollution" from their loft on 6th Avenue and 14th Street, which they recoded on tape and used in some of their joint compositions. I suggest Bernie move full time to his summer home on Cape Cod and enjoy winter there so he won't have to be sullied by a class lower than his.

  4. Ellen Pearlman says:

    And to second that, here is a quote from Ai Wei Wei, the most important artist in China today, who has already faced house arrest for his views on art and society, and yes graffiti art is art. "Ai Weiwei often referred to as the Andy Warhol of China. Wei slyly wrote, "In a rational social system artists should play the part of a virus, like a computer virus. A small project has the ability to effect definite change in a rational society, and the chaos that results form such a change is the process of making a rational world more alert. That is an important function of art today; otherwise, if art were merely reflecting public morals, then its outcome would be far inferior to scientific activity." Graffiti artists are not sick or degraded!

  5. elephantjournal says:

    Great point. But I think the point I'm hearing is that when you go to Nature, you may hear campfires and conversation…but there's a vast and profound quiet that isn't silent. It's a quiet that we forget exists, like the black night sky in an area without much light pollution—but, whether camping or living in the country or keeping our simple home elegant, it's something powerful and wonderful that's available to all of us human beings, too! ~ Waylon

  6. elephantjournal says:

    Ellen, wow! Great passion.

    The use of graffiti images is mine, in reference to the famous Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and not through any fault of Dr. Weitzman. I chose the photos. In any case, street art can be elegant, an art form, a form of activism or protest as you say…or it can be degraded. Just like any art, it can uplift or drag down.

    So please direct any criticism to me re that.

    Here's mentions of graffiti, street art we've shown love for in the past on ele:

    Finally, you're on the edge of violating our respectful comments policy. Let's remember how to disagree without being disagreeable, svp?

    Yours, Waylon

  7. elephantjournal says:

    You should write something for us about this! Obviously graffiti, like any art, in my limited experience, can be awakening or ego-based. It doesn't have to be all good or all bad, I think? ~ Waylon

  8. Juliana says:

    The (illegal) 'defacing property' element of graffiti art is perhaps what makes it 'pollution.' Not the art in itself. And there are different types of graffiti–there is graffiti that I would consider 'art' and then there are the ugly, artless tags and lewd or pointless words and phrases, etc. It's difficult to make such blanket statements about something so diverse. But again, I would go back to the defacing element of graffiti as a key reason for being considered 'pollution.'

    And if you want to talk about class and race: mostly gentrified, wealthy, white New Yorkers want graffiti in their neighborhoods so they can pretend to be authentic and poor while shopping at Whole Foods on the Bowery using credit cards paid for by family money. Let's be real.

    But I think we're both missing the point here.

  9. Yogini3# says:

    Actually, that's not true. Having worked many years (rank-and-file) for property management companies in NYC, upscale area co-op boards will be the first to pay for graffiti clean-up. I also did a brief stint at the NYC Department of Transportation, and from the City's end, too–enforcement against graffiti on bridges, bollards, common areas, trestles and tunnels are heavily enforced in the wealthy areas.

    You may have confused some of this with commissioned murals on the sides of buildings.

    Private property where wealthy live? No way!

  10. Juliana says:

    No, I agree! I think people *do* want graffiti cleaned up. I was just being sassy.

  11. Steven says:

    The problem is not just defacing property, it's also that most graffiti is not done by artists who are doing it simply as art or as a deliberate social statement. Most graffiti here in LA is pretty degraded and shows little artistic sensibility, whether it's on a freeway overpass or in a public restroom, and much of it seems to be gang-related. Most of it consists of some combination of the person's name and/or street name, the name of their crew/gang, crude slogans, explicit sexual statements, and sometimes other obscenities. And the more of it you see outside on the buildings and the street, generally the worse (in terms of poverty, crime, etc) the neighborhood. It may be an expression of desperation and/or rebellion, but that doesn't make it pretty to look at, improve the look of the neighborhood, or magically inject greater meaning or understanding into it. I am not trying to put down the people who do it so much as to warn against romanticizing their lives, which may not be so pleasant and artistic as you imagine. The fact that they're out doing graffiti of this kind is a sign of deeper social problems that should not be ignored or glossed over as just a different culture or different kind of artistic expression.

    There is a difference between respecting the cultural expression of different social classes and ethnic groups, and giving undue respect to a bad situation, delinquency, criminal activity, or neurotic, self-defeating patterns of behavior. Not to mention inter-ethnic strife or racial strife between subaltern groups tricked into scapegoating one another by the dominant groups.

    This is different from someone like the Chinese graffiti artist cited.

    On a more general note, well said, Uncle!

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