While working in a cafe in NYC’s Chinatown earlier this year, I met an artist named Bryan Christie. We would talk when he got coffee in the mornings and eventually the topic of meditation came up. I told him I ran this website, and he told me about his practice. A couple weeks later, we arranged an interview at his studio down the street. I’m grateful to Bryan for his time and I think you will find a lot here— both in his artwork and his story.
Could you give a background of your experience with meditation?
Well, I was born in 1973. My mother and father were involved with Guru Maharaji in New York, so it was in the family. When I was 13 or 14, my mother became involved in another ashram and I was very skeptical. At the time I was rebelling— punk rock, shaving my head, etc. For mother’s day, the gift she wanted was me to come with her to the ashram. So I went with her, still skeptical. We went into a temple upstate in the Catskills, and I sat down, and I had a spiritual experience right then and there.
I realized it was an awakening of sorts. Since then, I’ve been a meditator. I chant, too. I’ve gotten in and out of meditation and practicing it. I had a tumultuous 20s and I drifted away from it. Then I meditated again in my early 30s. My life crumbled in my mid 30s and I stopped meditating, and now it’s a huge part of my life again.
Want to go into some details?
The most recent bout of that was in 2007. My background is as an illustrator. In 2007, my career blew up in a good way. I had a couple commissions back to back. One was a cover for Wired magazine and another was an above the fold illustration for the New York Times. I was quickly working around the clock, getting calls for offers and pulling a couple all-nighters each week. That took its toll on me.
Eventually I fell apart and wound up in a psych ward, about 5 years ago. From there, I went into an intensive outpatient program for a couple months. Then I went through a scary suicidal phase, eventually started drinking too much, and was put into another outpatient program four years ago. The suicidal ideation was becoming so intense and my wife was getting so concerned that I went to a rehab three and a half years ago.
There I was diagnosed with PTSD from childhood trauma. That diagnosis was a doorway into treating this pain I’d been in my whole life and desperately running away from. And with that diagnosis, meaningful change started happening.
Did you find that the reason for stopping meditating was because you became too reliant on it and it started to lose its ability?
From 14 to 17 I was meditating all of the time. I guess what happened is the trauma started to rear its head when I was a teenager, and I was feeling so miserable that the misery took me away from meditating, when you would think the opposite would happen. What I realized is that meditation was my only solace. This one thing that has given me so much solace had existed alongside me being miserable and wanting to kill myself. I figured something wasn’t working and so I gave it up. I turned to alcohol as a teenager too, and I was desperately looking for something to give me peace.
The same way I reached to meditation to feel peace was the same way I reached to alcohol. The impulse was the same, but there were positive things I could do and negative things I could do. Over these 42 years, I’ve gone through some intense waves of being either involved in meditation or engaging in self-destructive behavior.
I’ve always been interested in the relationship between narcotics and meditation. The mind that’s drawn to meditation seems to similarly be drawn to dulling substances. Alan Watts drank himself to death after writing 30 books about Zen and mindfulness.
I don’t care too much to do what Alan Watts did. I have two kids, I run a studio, I don’t resonate with that. For me, these destructive behaviors are a certain stimulus that removes me from my head. Meditation serves that purpose but without the terrible side-effects. There’s a reason booze is called “spirits” (laughs).
Yeah, I guess alcohol sort of removes you from your own humanity and self-consciousness. Tempting for a lot of people. Meditation forces us to confront ourselves in a different way though. The water becomes clear enough to see stuff you don’t want to see, and it can leave you terrified.
Spot on. These memories just hit me in the face. I was a junior in high school. That summer I spent a month at an ashram and something cleaned out in me. I saw something in myself, and I wasn’t ready for it. My senior year of high school I completely fell apart. And then ten years ago, I spent another week in India, and that was the beginning of falling apart again.
I have faith that something was sped up and going through those dark periods has allowed me to engage fully in my life now rather than walking around in a coma. People talk about PTSD as like a living coma, being completely cut off. When I was first diagnosed, I had a guy I connected with who had PTSD from the Vietnam War. He was a spiritual teacher. One of the first things he said to me was that the two most effective treatments for PTSD are spirituality and community. It’s been through spirituality that I’ve confronted my trauma. You never overcome trauma, but you can live with it.
I have gratitude for the disasters I’ve been through. I don’t regret any of it. What’s really powerful with having gone through trauma and having PTSD and learning how to live with it and acknowledge it using spiritual tools, there’s an opportunity to connect with other people on a deep level. I’ve had experiences where I’ve connected with someone who I found out suffers from PTSD and I can understand in a deep way what they’re going through. That acknowledgement and identification is such an incredibly deep thing.
I read a beautiful poem a couple months ago by Jeff Foster and one of the lines is, “All that can be lost will be lost.” Everything in physical existence is impermanent. I’m going to lose all of this stuff. From that perspective, if you look at what it means to be a human being and live in the world, it’s all about trauma. Everyone experiences so much trauma.
There’s a theory I got sort-of obsessed with in college called Geotrauma and it’s this idea that the most microscopic units of existence are constantly in conflict, you know? Proton versus electron, etc. There’s always this underlying clashing and nature functions hierarchically and all of this stuff. Everything is at war. And so the way we’ve formulated our symbolic world represents this inherent violence in the physical world. I encountered it in an academic context but it deeply influenced my spirituality and helped me start to cope with the fact that, you know, like Lao tzu said, “Darkness within darkness, the gateway of all understanding.” Once you get into this spiritual understanding, the darkness, negativity, trauma, and violence is all fundamental to the process of growth. It’s the truth of things.
I thought of a William Blake line that I used to have on my studio wall that said, “Colors are the wounds of light.” When you think about that— you have pure white light, unity. And then it goes through a prism and it gets shattered, torn apart, and these beautiful colors emerge. So, yeah, I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s what united us as a species— a desperation to feel whole.
And a collective inability to make peace with it at first.
Oh yeah… Some of us are given tools to try to make peace with that and some of us aren’t.
It seems that the tools you were given came through your trauma, in a certain sense. There are obviously a lot of people who approach spirituality without having experienced such trauma. But you relied on spirituality as a way of navigating the world with this mental and physical burden, and this pushed you to a point where you could understand things differently.
I appreciate that sentiment. I mentioned “overcome” and “triumph”. I try to stay away from those words. I heard a doctor recently say, “PTSD isn’t an illness, it’s a wound.” Scar tissue from wounds never goes away. So you can overcome this stuff by whatever means but it’s always under the surface somewhere. My job is to add that scar to the whole that is my being and not try to search and destroy it. In learning how to live with it, there is an opportunity for growth that might not exist otherwise. But that’s one of those Noble Truths: Life contains suffering. Some people go through it in very specific ways of seeing their friends blown apart in wars or being abused, but we all experience it somehow.
My recovery and my spirituality is a bridge back into life. I was walking around in a coma, so I’m trying to enter into life. Asserting ways of thinking that make me feel different from other people— I don’t want to do that. I just want to take care of myself. Because I’m taking care of myself I can be there for my kids and wife, paint, and live.
(laughs) Yeah, totally.
Can you elaborate on what your actual meditative practice consists of?
The ashram that my mother took me to when I was 14, Siddha Yoga— that’s the type of meditation I’ve been involved in. There are a bunch of different types of yogas involved with it beyond posture or meditation. My current practice is just meditating for 30 minutes a day. I usually do it early in the mornings. I wake up around 4:30, a very special time. I have an altar and I offer incense, light a candle, wave it to an image of my guru, then I do a brief prayer that changes day-to-day.
For the most part, I’m praying for the awareness and the openness to experience the constant grace that is in our lives. Love is everywhere. I’m usually praying for that rather than things. But I did go through a scary financial period recently and I realized that if I started making enough money again, you could consider that good for my children, so sometimes I think about material things.
I pray a bit, I pranam, which is a bowing offer of myself. Then I sit for meditation. Siddha Yoga doesn’t teach a specific form of meditation where you breathe a special way or stare at a candle or whatever. I usually become aware of my body, trying to witness my body and breath. It’s a disengagement from what’s going on in my life. Rather than identifying with my mind, I’m trying to enter into more of a thoughtless state. I repeat a mantra a lot of the time. That’s basically it.
One thing that’s coming up recently is that I’m trying to will through my own powers a spiritual experience, which isn’t right. My self will, along with the pain I was in, led me to burn myself with cigarettes and almost kill myself. My will isn’t always my friend. Instead, I’m trying to consciously open myself up to this universal energy and let that flow through me.
Hafiz talks about being the “hole in a flute that the Christ’s breath moves through.” That’s it for me. I want to be the hole in the flute. A lot of times when I walk into the studio to paint I want to be Michelangelo. I want to be the baddest motherfucker that ever lived. But when I catch myself thinking like that, I remember that Hafiz line. I don’t go to the ashram much anymore but I do do some chanting and scriptural study. I’m reading the Upanishads right now. My practice also consists of being connected to the community of PTSD survivors. That’s a very important part of my spirituality.
I’m very rooted in Zen and so I’m always curious what other approaches are. There’s usually heavy overlap between disciplines since meditation is basically meditation. And the experience tends to be the same. Everyone seems to end up coming to terms with both this universal energy and also make peace with the void.
That’s why I like Hafiz and these thinkers, they refer to a diverse variety of thinkers. I try not to be too promiscuous in the path I follow. I don’t mean having tunnel vision, but I try to keep my study focused. I’m a creature of habit. I need a laser-like focus in order to thrive. If I read too much variety it gets all jumbled up. The philosophy behind Siddha Yoga is called Kashmir Shaivism, so I’m trying to keep with that.
I’m realizing that there’s a spirituality behind every action you take. Showing up in the world is a spiritual practice. Showing up in the studio, making a living, supporting my kids, etc, there’s a spirituality inherent in all of this. I feel like nothing changes throughout history— maybe the stakes have gotten higher, but you know.
Rumi wrote, “The human shape is a ghost
made of distraction and pain.
sometimes pure Light, sometimes cruel,
trying wildly to open,
this Image tightly held within itself.”
That’s our history— distraction. Now we’re distracted by technology, our ancestors were distracted by cheetahs chasing them down, these are all still distractions. A lot of our present-day distractions aren’t life or death per se, but they involve a certain spiritual death.
I’ve heard it said, “Meditation is the practice of death.” Like we said, thanks to spirituality you were reborn out of your own pain. This death/rebirth process brought you back into the world. Can we talk a bit about your psychoanalysis?
I was in therapy since I was 17. I don’t need to go into specifics; it was a necessary crutch that was enabling me to survive but there wasn’t a lot of growth happening. It basically just stopped the bleeding until I landed in the psych ward 6 years ago. I started up with a new therapist and that really changed things.
Do you find similarities between analysis and spiritual practice?
There’s absolutely a contemplative aspect to both. But for me, spirituality is about experience. It’s about experiencing the love in my heart, living in this place, feeling the ease of that universal energy. My experience with psychoanalysis was a very analytical and intellectual thing. It’s different in that way. There is no program of action with therapy. You just sit and talk.
It’s like ping pong. Or wall tennis…
(laughs) I hope I don’t come across as dismissive of therapy.
Well, there has to be some value if you’ve been doing it since 17.
Yeah, like I mentioned, my life crumbled 6 or 7 years ago and there’s been a combination of things that have kept me alive and allowed me to enter into the world again. One of them is therapy. Another one is spirituality, community, etc. All of those things are facets of a whole. I seem to need a multi-faceted modality to get through things.
When you’re creating artwork, do you find yourself losing yourself in the process? Do you see your art as a form of meditation? Where’s the overlap?
Making art is one of those facets I need. It’s something to do, something I love, something to show up for. Being in the studio is a shitshow. It can be so wonderful and it can also be existentially terrible. Oscar Wilde said, “All art is in fact quite useless.” But for me, art keeps my soul alive. I would love to think my practice of art-making is a meditation. I’ve mentioned prayer, and one of the things I do pray for is to allow me to think of myself as a vessel for creative energy.
My work is definitely a searching for our hidden infinite nature. That’s what I’m trying to convey and point you towards. But in the act itself it feels more like work than meditation to me. It’s all action. It’s outward. Does it matter if I’m actually in a meditative state while I’m working? I don’t know.
I do a lot of contemplation about what I want my work to be about, and what brings it forward. What brings it forward for me is that we’re all a manifestation of this same energy, and that energy has congealed itself into our physical bodies. We’re these vibratory, beautiful things. Our bodies are gross if you cut us open. The fluid that we’re born from is gross. (laughs) But it’s very real.
The imagery of these paintings is gory. But in that gore I want to show the inner light, the infinite. I care about art that gives me an experience, that centers me and gives me a sense of peace. When I look at a great piece of art, the world makes sense for a moment. It encapsulates everything. I don’t know quite how to articulate it.
I think that’s the beauty of it. It’s beyond articulation. Thanks Bryan.