Remembering the end of my short engineering career.
– Where was the beauty before we see it? –
I’m making jewelry again. There seem to be phases in my life, off and on, when I suddenly feel an urge to come back to this little activity that has given me peculiar satisfaction many times before. I sit in the shade under our mesquite tree and fiddle around with an endless supply of useless, meaningless material I’ve picked up here and there. I often sink into a state of deep, effortless concentration. Not so much with a clear vision of a product in mind but calmly watching myself doing things I don’t really need to understand. At the end lie little necklaces on my table, little miracles of previously completely hidden beauty that never cease to surprise and amaze myself the most.
I sit and hear the surf telling its never ending story, the birds chatting, and feel the wind playfully exploring my skin. There is very little thinking going on, just quiet, mostly unreflected doing, a steady flow of little actions with unconscious purpose. In a quite familiar way now, I’m not really there, I’m just watching, I’m watching with intense undivided participation.
I only use completely worthless stuff as material for my necklaces, stuff that once, in idle times without agenda, caught my attention and that seems to say nothing as itself but suddenly begins to sing and shine when put into a context, into a context I myself was not aware of before. It’s the timeless miracle of creativity that has no author and no owner, just a vehicle, which happens to be me. It has no reason and no purpose, except what blooms up in my own mind. I put these things together and they become beautiful. Where was the beauty before?
Beauty arises, I didn’t really make the beauty; maybe I found a way to make it visible. But maybe art is just this powerful trick of breaking the trance we walk around in most of the time, the trance in which we look without seeing, in which we look for something we expect instead for what is. Maybe art is this little wake-up bell that changes ones perception, that doesn’t really make things beautiful but alters the quality of our awareness in an absolute way so we see what was always there but didn’t pay attention to before. Sometimes, perhaps after visiting a museum and marveling at beautiful pictures, we come out and suddenly see everything around with different eyes and get flooded with beauty wherever we look. Where was the beauty before we see it?
It’s like the formidable Zen-koan: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?‘ It’s a mind-teaser, intellectually nearly impossible to grasp, and yet, when you relax into the “problem”, the question dissolves. You don’t see an answer because you don’t look for one. But you see where the question comes from and how the question is doomed by assumptions, by the mere mechanics, the natural limitations of the small mind. At a certain stage one may even come up with a beautiful answer, but the point is to see: oh yeah, I sense what this question doesn’t ask at all but what it perfectly demonstrates.
Today I use little shells, pieces of broken coral, sea urchin pins, fish bones, little stones, various seeds, natural stuff I find wherever I look. Once there was a wonderful cathartic episode in my life when I used industrial junk for my necklaces. It was some 25 years ago when my short intense career as an engineer came to an end, or rather when I struggled with the decision to let it end prematurely at a pretty young age.
I had invented and designed all kinds of things like music cassette-playing devices for car radios and other more exciting stuff. It was a fabulous job; I truly enjoyed it but had already started it with secret reservations and the serious intention to not let it be more than a game. A game of playing and experimenting with the mysterious rules of society, to feel out all these strange things like social identity, social status, the countless rules people live by or think they have to live by. A game, not so much to figure out how I could fit in into this society, but investigating what these rules really are, who is making them, and if there is actually anyone enforcing them. One important aspect of our social organization is money, so part of this game was not only making money but checking out how much is enough.
After only 6 years I thought I had enough – a decision I reflected on a lot ever since but never regretted – and I wanted out to look for my own style, my own life. I had all the success I could have dreamed of, I had several nice patents, they paid me tons of money and offered enough more to make me dizzy. It was great, but – not surprising to me, only to all the others – the attraction of it all remained limited. When my engineering career started to take off and soar but had lost its initial intriguing attribute of adventure I wanted to get out.
Sometimes then, in my spare time, I found myself making necklaces out of parts of these tape player devices. Stuff I had myself designed for very serious and absolutely non artistic purposes, stuff I surely had put my heart blood into and which – I was unsettled to see this – stared back at me now as pieces of my very own identity.
Looking back, this little playful practice at that time of making jewelry was tremendously therapeutic for me. To look at my engineered stuff from such a totally different perspective was like a revelation. Little metal pieces like springs, washers, bearings, nuts, and other utterly inappropriate objects like electronic resistors, capacitors, integrated circuits, and connectors became art. A little spiral shaped gear wheel, that had a highly academic background and once was the solution for a huge technical problem and had gained me a lucrative patent and fame in certain circles, became an intriguing adornment for beautiful women. A series of bronze bearings of a new exotic material, that had bizarre cracks all over and given me great headaches because it never worked, looked incredibly decorative around a female neck.
Once the ban was broken, there was no stopping to abuse my creations for artwork. What had originally been a problem was suddenly a solution, what had a rational purpose before had now a charm. And of course, just to rediscover such ambivalence of things was instructive and actually a wonderful relief. Maybe it was the silent message I gave to myself: “Hey, don’t get trapped in this identity of a smart engineer who is thinking up ‘noise making machines‘ no one really needs. And, when you see something, look again from a different angle, and keep wondering what it really is.”
As a boy, dreaming of a wonderful purpose of my life and feeling the apparently so uniquely masculine fascination with problem solving in general and with science, physics, and machines in particular, I was convinced that science was the real search for truth. And if there was anyone who had the necessary pragmatism, the deeply humane common sense to apply science in order to save the world, it was engineers. I saw science as truth and engineering as an act of love and service. I thought of engineers as the ones who not only understood things but also could make things. I thought that real scientists and engineers would never sell out such ideals to “the System”, to corporations, to profane inferior standards like profit, and if they had to, in order to make a living, they would be utterly unhappy. It soon became clear that the real world is far more complex, but I still always resisted to conform.
In my first (and last) job, when it seemed I was just sailing along so effortlessly, having a ball, I felt the tentacles of the gigantic octopus reach out for me, the nameless, faceless “System” ready to devour and digest me. It would use my energy to grow stronger and stronger itself throughout my life, without ever consulting me, while I grew older and weaker until, in the end, it would simply excrete me and perhaps find another virgin soul full of energy to take my place and do the same thing all over again.
This System has its very own goals, entirely independent of us and often mercilessly opposed to our wellbeing. It is by no means a physical entity or a person, anything tangible at all, and yet it seems to rule our lives more than anything else as it consists of us, as it is what we are when we forget our true identity and confuse it with the forever doomed sensation of Self.
Well, I made my move, then, and resigned. It caused quite a stir because it seemed to make no sense at all to others. Quitting when things are going so well? Some just thought I was nuts, some thought I was hiding something, some – as always – felt threatened by a guy who didn’t play by the rules and seemed not impressed with what they worshiped. Very few didn’t hide a smile on their faces and secretly whispered: “right on man, good luck for you.”
There was a big goodbye party, quite in the style of the system I was so suspicious about. All the big guys were there who had watched this new rising star begin to shine. And the beautiful wife of my direct boss was there, wearing, with a bewitching expensive dress, one of my necklaces – an arrangement of turquoise 5.7MΩ resistors with sparkling hexagonal M2.5 brass nuts on a black string that was the insulation of an antenna cable. The combination was absolutely stunning, it was so beautiful it made my heart jump. Of course, I caught the unmistakable twinkle in her eye when she was quite aware of the admiration she received, mixed with barely hidden disturbed looks of surprised recognition. I hadn’t even expected her to be an accomplice. They all immediately knew what it was, and no one was spared the news who made it. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more fitting statement about my view on the whole subject, and in a way she understood me better than I understood myself. Today, after more than 25 years, I know that even some of the tough guys then swallowed hard on this subtle message in an unfamiliar language. Some later admitted that they waited eagerly for me to come back, broken, and repent. But I never did.
So here I’m sitting again, watching things appear out of nothing, practicing expressing myself without caring about my Self. Producing more and more of these little “hey, what is this – things” made an inevitable new problem come up. What should I do with them? Of course, Parvin was my super model, my museum at times, a never-ending delight to see her with the stuff. But eventually I had to face the task to sell it. I always have a deep-rooted mysterious problem with selling things I made myself, so here another potential of this little practice soon emerged: Inventing a price and offering it for sale. What a miracle this was as well.
One time – it was actually on Teneriffa, one of the Canary Islands off Africa – I made a little glassed display box and put it up for show. Well, they sold like hot cake, which was great, but most of all I enjoyed meeting hundreds of people I would otherwise never have met.
To see the reflection of my own delight and amazement in the eyes of total strangers was a continuous revelation. People understood; although I sometimes explained my philosophical musings there was no need to do so. To watch people in the act of recognizing a subtle profound universal message, to watch them understand what is indescribable, is like magic. To meet total strangers on a level where we are not strangers at all, where the illusiveness of personhood softly falls away and where we are not only the same but where the concept of identity doesn’t apply. This kind of experience is something beyond our thinking. In the thinking realm there is a difference between ugly and beautiful, between trivial and special, between oneness and variety. In fact it’s the essence of thinking to identify such differences. However, it takes nothing but what I call a shift of awareness, a non-physical, non-measurable, minute act of changing the focus of awareness to see not with the eyes but with the heart and to see that ugliness and beauty are the same, that my view and your view is just view, that you and me is only one possibility of a zillion others to divide what is actually the same.
These are only glances; it’s our nature to lose such a view again and again. And it’s a lifelong practice to seek to regain it.
I don’t know yet what the underlying condition is, this time, for picking up my little practice again.
One woman went home yesterday with an assembly of light blue coral pieces and a string of tiny snails that once walked on seaweed in France. I felt her slightly trembling when I helped her close the little lock behind her neck. And didn’t she have an aura around her when she walked away, a glow, something I hadn’t seen before?
Klaus written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010