The true person is not anyone in particular. But like the deep blue color of the limitless sky, it is everyone, everywhere in the world. – Eihei Dogen
The No-Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center is pleased to present Awake Youth Project: Seven Bodies of Liberation on view from June 14–October 9, 2013. These four-foot square works on paper pulse with the extraordinary visual efforts of the thirteen teenagers in the Awake Youth Project; a program which connects mindfulness practice to the lives of high-schoolers from East New York. The drawings were initiated in commemoration of Black History Month as an active meditation on liberation.
The seven bodies are: liberation from racism, emotion, judgment, addiction, sexism, religion, and poverty. The Awake Youth came up with these themes in brainstorming sessions guided by artist and Zen practitioner, Noah Fischer and Awake Youth program director Zen priest Greg Snyder. The teenagers’ meditation practice empowers them not to over-identify with these suffering dimensions, but rather to study them through meditation, and in the case of this exhibition, collaborative art sessions.
Each session began with a meditation period and ended with a group reflection.
To catalyze the drawings, AYP participants took their familiar meditation posture in front of the papers and traced their shadows – these are the bodies, the beginning of a creative journey. The pencil-line borders between “me” and “not me” became both an aesthetic and conceptual element and a challenge. In the drawing entitled “Liberation from Racism” the border was crossed completely, body flowing into the completeness and freedom of the ink brush strokes.
These are true collaborative drawings; each work represents the relaxed genius of the collective mind. This big mind knows that each stroke of the brush or pen or placement of a cutout is impermanent – part of a flow, which can be channeled but not controlled or fully understood. Drawings were rotated during sessions to keep them fresh, and decisions were made through consensus. The drawing are powerfully unexpected, aesthetically rich, and real.
The Awake Youth Project has three years of experience providing secular mindfulness and meditation instruction in some of the most underfunded, public schools in New York City. Mindfulness begins by simply addressing our initial inability to be with what is happening for more than a moment. Through our curricula, students witness for themselves that believed thought is at the root of stress, judgment, anxiety, depression, anger and negative reactions. With this knowledge, they are able to understand that their thoughts and reactions, not the situations and environments, are the cause of the majority of their negative emotions. Consequently, emotional and mental freedom – the issue probably dearest to all of us – is no longer wrapped up in fighting with circumstances, but in training the mind and understanding its conditioning. Students no longer see their lives as fundamentally problematic, but as works in progress.
In addition to the mental revolution that occurs through mindfulness, there is also a profound shift in the body’s ability to tolerate difficult sensations, whether they arise from self-judgment or violence unfolding in front of us. Practiced at being mindful of the rising and falling of life as it comes to be, we no longer feel the need to compulsively react to circumstances. Breath by breath and observation by observation, self-encouragement begins to replace self-doubt and soon, with these new skills, students are focusing more on school work and life aspirations. Aggressive tendencies, whether verbal or physical, begin to quiet. They are able to clarify goals and initiatives as they allow the stress and insults of high school life to move through them. As one Awake Youth Project senior at Midwood said, “The things in life, you may not be able to change them, but you can change the way you deal with them, and your attitude toward them.”