Thursday, December 2, 2010


[We] are luminous beings. We are perceivers. We are an awareness; we are not objects; we have no solidity. We are boundless.
--Carlos Casteneda, Tales of Power

Today we celebrate the birthday of Georges Seurat, the 19th Century French painter. He died at age 31, leaving us just a literal handful of paintings. Yet Seurat gained fame for taking the breakthroughs of the Impressionists another quantum leap forward. His pioneering painting techniques applied scientific insights into the nature of light and color to pursue Luminosity, the subject of today’s meditation.

Seurat grew up in Paris. His father, an odd man, lived three miles away from the apartment in which Georges and his two siblings dwelt with their gentle mother. An introvert, Georges spent his time in local parks drawing the other children and passersby--which may explain why his few and famous paintings mostly depict park scenes. After attending art school and serving in the army, he set up a studio on the West Bank. Impressionism had electrified the Parisian art scene, and gave Seurat a starting point. The Impressionists aimed to reproduce viewers’ subjective experience of movement, light, and color in the real world on the canvas.

To understand Seurat, we must review a bit of optics, the science of light and color. Isaac Newton showed that prisms split light into constituent colors. Unlike the creation of colors with paint pigments--mixes of red, blue, and yellow--the creation of colors with light uses red, blue, and green. A French chemist and tapestry restorer, Michel Chevreul, likewise noticed that adjacent colored threads on a tapestry produced a different perceived color when viewed from a distance. In other words, the beholder had a different perception of color in her eye, and mind, than one would obtain staring at the tapestry threads up close.

Seurat believed one could thus simulate the true experience of vision by applying to the canvas not the pigments that crudely aped the colors of the real world, but rather eleven “spectral hues” that, applied in small points, would, at a distance, induce in the viewer’s mind yet a different color. Unlike the Impressionists, who used instinct to reproduce this experience of vision, Seurat believed science could offer a rational approach to painting. The use of colored dots of pigment to produce yet a different color with greater Luminosity is called pointillism.

The Impressionists did not know what to make of 25-year-old Seurat, and at their Exhibition they literally hid his first painting, Bathers at Asnières, behind a door in a dark corner. With Perseverance, however, Seurat continued to paint, and after three years unveiled A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, a masterpiece. This painting got the attention of the successors to the Impressionists, and Seurat’s work anticipated that of later greats like Picasso and Matisse.

Seurat’s painting shows that our experience of the world takes place in our own minds, rather than what might actually be out there in the “real world.” The quality of Luminosity--defined in optics, art, and astronomy as “the quality of emitting or reflecting light”--can also refer, in the Buddhist canon, to a virtuous quality of one’s own mind. His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains:

In relation to the nature of mind, what is luminosity?... Say you look at an object which doesn’t have bright colours but is rather subdued in colour and not very attractive. And you look at it for a while. Then, while looking at this object, you make the determination: ‘I shall retain my concentration in order to focus my attention upon my own perception, upon my own experience. And I shall not allow myself to be distracted by other objects, external or internal.’

In other words, Luminosity refers to a state of Sati (Mindfulness) where you recognize that your experience of “reality” lies only in your perceptions of the world within your mind. Just as the colors one sees in a Seurat painting are not the ones on the canvas, but an optical phenomenon within your brain, your experience of your “reality” lies within your mind. The path to Enlightenment requires passage through Luminosity--recognition that our own perceptions, pleasant or not, can distract us if we mistake them for having inherent existence.

A recent commentary from Aeptha, founder of the aptly-named Light Haven mystery school, speaks to this. In a discussion on another virtue, the quality of Surrender, Aeptha points out that for those on the spiritual path, we must recognize the distractions offered to us by our own insecurities: “Defeat seems to be about identifying with all the perceptions that our ego tells us is real.” Seeing perceptions as just that--perceptions--requires Effort and Concentration.

Today, take a moment to appreciate the splendor of Seurat’s luminous canvases, and the insight that the perceptions within our minds are distinct from “reality.” Minding this distinction attains the Lightness of being, the clear mind, that takes us along our path.

May we see the gates of Luminosity, and perhaps make a home there.

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