Listening to Colors
By Jay McDaniel
The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colors the most.
Colors can be especially important in East-West thinking. They are energetic presences in their own right and lures for feeling. If we are Christian, we can understand colors as sacraments through which divine light shines. If we are Buddhist we can see them as gateways into the wisdom of enlightenment. If we are spiritual but not religious, we can see them as vessels for the Song of the Universe. Colors are like music. They speak a language beyond religious affiliation.
Indeed, in order to think about colors, it can be helpful first to think about music. In JJB we are proposing that music is what feelings sound like. The sounds of music are externalizations of human feeling in acoustic form. These sounds are by no means reducible to lyrics. They are melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and the soulfulness of the sounds themselves.
At least this is how things seem from a Whiteheadian perspective. He offers an acoustic vision of reality. The idea of an acoustic vision may seem strange to many western “substance” oriented philosophies which have relied almost exclusively on visual experience – or more specifically detached visual perception -- as a key to understanding the world. They have pictured the building blocks of reality on the analogy of particles that can be located in space and separated from one another by clear boundaries.
The Whiteheadian perspective offers a more Buddhist perspective. The world is pictured in terms of events which arise and then perish, like musical notes. We humans are events, too; or, more accurately, a series of events. Each moment of our lives is a happening in its own right, in which we feel the presence of the world around us and respond with creativity of our own, like jazz musicians. This is why music is so important. It tells us about the feelings of people and other living beings, whether happy or sad, as gathered into the Adventure of the Universe as one. This adventure has a life ot its own. It is an act of Deep Listening, equally present to all living beings, in whatever dimensions they reside, and who shares in their joys and sufferings. Buddhists might speak of this Deep Listening as a cosmic Bodhisattva of Compassion. Whitehead's name for this Listening was "God." Christians see the Listening as enfleshed, but not exhausted, in Jesus.
Colors are part of the Adventure of the universe, too. As God is present to all living beings, God becomes the color of their moods. At least this is how a Whiteheadian can think of color. Two important ideas are part of a Whiteheadian philosophy of color. Colors are what feelings look like and colors are events, too.
The idea that colors are events means that color are musical in their own way, and that we can see colors in the same spirit that we hear music. We can see colors acoustically. We can listen to colors, we can prehend them in ways that resonate with their moods. This is because colors are not passive objects devoid of emotional tonality; they are emotional vibrations – energetic happenings -- which influence our experience in conscious and subconscious ways, and which become part of the ongoing fabric of our lives.
The idea that colors have moods is familiar to fabric designers, culinary artists, flower arrangers, interior designers, landscape artists, film makers, painters, and sculptors. They sense the energies within colors, and this is why they choose one color or another.
Of course the visual arts are not about colors alone. They are about colors, content, proportion, and tactility. When we see a sculpture, for example, we can feel its tactility with our eyes, even if we cannot touch it. The various senses blend together in our experience like gradations of colors themselves. This is a Whiteheadian idea, too. It is that experiences from all the senses come together in the moment of concrescence, where “the many become one.” The term for this is synesthesia. See Process Theology of Synesthesia.
Synesthesia is everywhere. I recall having a meal with a friend in China and we were eating a vegetable which was yellow. He leaned over and remarked that we were eating yellow. We both laughed because it sounded strange to western ears. But it was clear enough that the color of the food had an effect on our eating of it, even if it did not obviously affect our taste buds. As it happens he was a Whiteheadian philosopher, too. At the very least, our eating included our eyes as well as our tongues. Everyone who appreciates food culture knows this. Colors can taste good, too.
But certainly it with the eyes, not the tongue, that we know the most about colors, and often they have a spiritual significance to those with pure minds and hearts. Consider the role of colors in Thangka paintings of Tibetan Buddhism. These are scroll paintings, typically on linen cloth or cotton fabric, and sometimes, in special cases, on silk. They often depict the lives of the Buddha or Buddhists saints and are used among other ways to communicate teachings in pictorial form. The key, though, is to look at the colors in a contemplative way, allowing them to nourish the heart and mind. Then you can see – then you can feel – the moods of the colors themselves.
How much of this is a matter of social construction, and how much is a matter of energy contained within visual presentation itself? It is difficult to say. The seeing of a color partly depends on the seeing itself, and the very act of perception is an interpretive act, influenced by the outlook on life of the culture at issue. A very complex philosophy of color has emerged in the Tibetan traditions, with different colors symbolizing different states of awareness into which a serious practitioner can enter. Still, we cannot help but wonder if, within or behind the act of interpreting, there is not some mood – some energetic vibration – in what presents itself. Consider the image below:
Symbolically, this represents a combination of what Tibetans call the eight auspicious symbols, deriving from Indian iconography. They are:
Parasol (chattra) - royalty and spiritual power
Golden Fishes (suvarnamatsya) - good fortune, fertility and salvation
Treasure Vase (kalasha) - spiritual and material abundance
Lotus (padma) - mental and spiritual purity
Conch Shell (sankha) - the fame of Buddha's teachings
Endless Knot (shrivasta) - infinite wisdom of the Buddha
Victory Banner (dhvaja) - victory of the Buddha's teachings and wisdom over ignorance
Wheel (dharmachakra) - the teachings of the Buddha [i]
A world of reflections could follow from a consideration of each symbolic meaning, and in JJB we hope to offer some reflections in due time. But for the moment let us just consider the colors themselves. Is there not something that shines forth in each color? Something that presents itself saying: “Here, pay attention. I am this color and not that one!” And is it not at least plausible that what is presenting itself is a landscape of the human soul and, perhaps, a landscape of the divine soul, too. Is it not possible that our concrescing minds -- like that of the Adventure of the Universe as One -- can be engraced by the vitality of each color, such that we ourselves become, in a way, rainbow-like in our minds, at least to some small degree? And would it not follow that our rainbow minds might lie in our capacity to embrace and understand the multiplicity of the world, with its many moods, in a spirit of compassion?
As I have written this essay, it happens that I met an old friend whom I had not seen in many years. I asked her what she was doing these days, and she said that she was part of a group of people who are trying to listen to colors. They were not listening to them to find personal peace alone, but to find hope for the world itself. To my mind they were interested in how the Song of the universe might speak in, and through, the dreams of human beings, and that colors might be a way to hear these dreams.
I suspect that her ideas would make sense to some Tibetan Buddhists. They know that the colors of Thangka paintings do not belong to Tibet alone. Certainly her ideas made sense to me. I, too, think that we are dreamed -- and perhaps even prayed -- by the colors of the world, as embodiments of the Great Compassion.
[i] Image and description taken from: http://www.tibetartwork.com/eight-auspicious-symbols.html.
A Technical Note for Whiteheadian philosophers:
In this column I am interpreting "colors" as eternal objects of the subjective species which, when actualized, are subjective forms in individual actual entities; and I am proposing that these subjective forms can be felt as objects by other actual entities through the colors. "For example, 'redness' may first be the definiteness of an emotion which is a subjective form in the experience of A; it thenbecomes an agent whereby A is objectified for B, so that A is objectified in respect to its prehension with the emotion." (Process and Reality, 292)
This objectification is understood by many artists: "The aesthetic feelings, whereby there is pictorial art, are nothing else than the products of the contrasts latent in a variety of colors qualifying emotion, contrasts which are made possible by their patterned relevance to each other." (Process and Reality, 162)
If visual art is one of your gateways to an enchanted universe, you may also enjoy:
The Colors of the Past
Photography by Maxine Payne
Horses Breathe, Too
Replanting Yourself in Beauty
The Numinosity of Rocks