Rothko: Rothko Chapel Murals

“Wisdom grows out of our clear seeing in each moment,” writes Jack Kornfield. “Seeing the arising and passing of our experience and how we relate to it.”

In other words, the way that we are able to experience reality is deceptively simple: Realizing where, what, and how we are in the direct moment. What becomes difficult for us is that the direct, present moment is often clouded by our thoughts of the past and future. The stillness of our canvas starts to morph and become dotted until it resembles a Jackson Pollock.

What we then see is, even in the stillness of the present moment, there is movement. When we meditate, we aren’t in a vacuum. Quite the opposite, we are experiencing the movement that occurs around us when we sit still. If we can gently quiet the mind, we can become more aware of our surroundings. For me, sometimes I take it as a given that the world is fairly static and all the movement is in my head. Then I sit, and I hear the birds outside. I see the sunlight dance in the breeze on my living room floor.

Or, in the right circumstance, we can notice that something supposedly monochromatic as the murals Mark Rothko made for Houston’s Rothko Chapel are actually a multitude of shades and tones. Known for bright color landscapes, Rothko's works for his eponymous Chapel are dark — mostly black and deep purple. Suna Umari, the Chapel’s historian, told NPR in 2011 that the point of this is to serve as "sort of a window to the beyond. [Rothko] said the bright colors sort of stop your vision at the canvas, where dark colors go beyond.… You're looking at the infinite.”

In this way, the Rothko Chapel murals offer us — despite an opaque darkness of tone — a clear path to seeing the moment, to seeing the infinite possibilities of each moment. We see the brushstrokes, we see the nuance of color shifts, we can even begin to see the intention and movement that went into each stroke. One of the metaphors for meditation is that, if we sit long enough, our mind can go from a running stream to a still pond. Likewise, a normal Rothko may have the texture and motion of that running water, while these murals give us more to access within the stillness: We see through the surface to what lies beneath.

Today’s Contemplation: Sitting in meditation, notice how you’re feeling — physically, emotionally, cognitively. Be aware of the running stream of thoughts in your head, the emotions you’re feeling, the touch of fabric on your skin. Bring your awareness out — notice the sounds of the room you’re sitting in. Notice what’s coming into your line of sight (if you meditate with your eyes open). As you become physically still, can you notice the moment of the universal landscape around you?