Buddhists teach that pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Suffering is what we add to pain when we either resist or identify with it. Resisting pain tends to intensify it—like tightening a muscle while getting an injection. Identifying makes matters worse from the opposite direction, leading us to collapse into darkness. Freedom from suffering comes when we can witness pain without becoming it, when we hit a sweet spot between resistance and identification.
The sweet spot isn’t the place we get to when the external crisis passes. It’s an orientation we can tap during crisis—a state of relative peace in the midst of an ongoing storm. Sometimes, rarely, relative peace gives way to gratitude, to beauty.
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Since this shocking period started, one of the most consistent beacons of light in my attempts to surrender without being subsumed by uncertainty and grief has been the painter and writer Mindy Weisel.
Mindy was one of the first children born in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp in 1947. Her parents survived Auschwitz.
In her breathtaking forthcoming memoir After: The Obligation of Beauty she recounts the bare outlines of their stories in a most unsentimental, yet most gentle voice. Her family history is the stage for the main story of After, a story about the life-sustaining power of art.
“The horrors of the Holocaust are not mine to tell,” she writes. “Yet, I can speak of seeking a purpose in living: an attempt at a fulfilling and meaningful life in the face of such enormous tragedy. I have been living a life in search of beauty.”
Mindy starts each painting by writing. She writes on the paper or canvas until the words lose their meaning. Then she mixes her paint and starts making marks—abstract marks that, as she puts it,
‘seem to be coming directly from my heart. My head is not involved. I write and paint out of a desire to coherently express what I am feeling. To form the unformed. To make order out of a deep internal disorder. I do not really know what I am feeling until it gets expressed and those feeling become “real” in the process of making art. I often feel I am simply a medium. A vessel that overflows with everything that has been poured into it. … My search while working is an attempt … [t]o express what is beyond language.’
Among Mindy’s most powerful works is a large, thickly layered oil painting titled Unconditional. It hangs in a gallery not far from Jerusalem’s Old City. Before Corona, I used to visit it whenever I was in the neighborhood. Time and again it hit me like a rawer, messier cousin of Rothko’s No. 8, a more serene, muted cousin of Chagall’s White Crucifixion. Its luminescent burst of red and orange is a burning bush on canvas, a testimony to the life-sustaining power of feeling deeply. Unconditional is a howl that is somehow also an embrace.
“Love is never stagnant,” Mindy writes in connection with this extraordinary work.
It is most fiercely independent; necessary; vital; universal; beyond language; willful; an essential aspect of our lives. Love has a life of its own. It is its own planet and I want to be a permanent resident.
Like the Song of Songs, Unconditional insists:
עַזָּ֤ה כַמָּ֙וֶת֙ אַהֲבָ֔ה
Love is as strong as death. Love can be as strong as death. If we let it. We have a choice. We can rage against the inevitable pain of loss, we can collapse into darkness, or we can reach for light.
When I forget, Mindy reminds me.