Brakhage, Buddhism, & the Difficulty of Sustained Attention

One reason I’m grateful for the years I spent immersed in Stan Brakhage’s films is the insight it’s given me into the nature of my own mind. This is also, of course, the central topic of Buddhist practice, and last night after Suranjan Ganguly’s monthly Brakhage screening at CU Boulder, I was talking with Homare Ikeda about how watching Stan’s films mirrors certain aspects of Buddhist meditation practice.

In Brakhage’s abstract hand-painted films especially, each individual frame is important. Though one can’t individually analyze each of the 24 very different frames that might shower onto one’s retina in a busy second, each frame, in relation to adjacent ones, contributes to the churning motion and intricate rhythms that make these movies, at their best, uniquely moving and powerful.

One knows this, that every moment counts, yet everyone who knows this body of work well is also familiar with a kind of sensory exhaustion that comes and goes as one watches. The level of attention that these films require really can’t be sustained continuously for an hour straight. The mind drifts for a moment, and the eye, involuntarily, takes a rest. One sinks for a moment into inward, often wordless, thoughtfulness. This moment of quiet mind is itself a gift, a difficult state to attain amidst the frenzy of daily life and obligation.

On the other hand, one often “wakes up” to realize that one’s mind has inadvertently shifted,  has drifted from concentration on the filmic moment into background chatter. Plans for the next day, cranky resentments, memories, errands to run. The urgency of moment-to-moment attention in Brakhage’s work makes these startled moments of awakening exceptionally intense, even alarming, like nodding off at the wheel of a fast-moving car. Bringing attention back, one is once again immersed in the texture, spark & tumble of Brakhage’s painted imagery. A moment, or a minute, or two, has passed during one’s absence.

Every Buddhist sect and lineage begins (and perhaps ends) with meditation practices that force one, again and again, to become aware of the wandering, chattering nature of ordinary, daily, busy mind. Whether one is focused on one’s own breath, a mantra, a tangka image of a deity, or a rhythmic Tibetan chant, the taming of one’s own undisciplined mind is the underlying project, and becoming aware of it is the first step.

The experience of meditation is related to watching a great hand-painted Brakhage film in this regard at least: One is reminded again and again of the limits of one’s attention. By learning to focus attention on purpose, we come to more clearly perceive our own minds and actions. To get there, though, requires that essential first insight, the realization that one is not actually fully aware. That one can be more so, and that the reward for that effort is, among other things, a richer, more vivid life, all the time.

“Devotees” of Stan Brakhage’s films and related experimental cinema are an odd breed, and one thing they share is a mind that they’ve conditioned by long practice to be capable of sustained attention, to a degree that few outside of spiritual disciplines even aspire to. As with other sects, cults, and conversions, most people in this crowd have a story about how they stumbled in and somehow got initiated into this profound and demanding body of work. I have mine.

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