Not a Single Point
Reflections on the use of destruction
When we hear the word “destruction,” many of us intuitively wince — bracing our bodies for the strong emotions (such as anger, outrage, devastation, and grief) that often come as a result.
Destruction, of course, is the other side of creation — it is the way in which structures dissolve (i.e. become de-structured), so that materials can be recycled to make something new. Black holes swallow up entire solar systems, as matter becomes antimatter, life eats life, and the cycle of creation continues. This dynamic is famously coded in the ancient symbol of the Ouroborus: the snake that eats its own tail:
Yet outright destruction in nature is relatively rare. More often, nature seems to prefer to conserve its existing complexity through “structure-preserving” acts of creation that “transcend and include” the forms that already exist, using them as building blocks in the emergence of ever-greater complexity — atoms become molecules, become cells, become organs, become bodies, become families, become communities, become cities, become countries, etc.
Even at a single scale of complexity, nature seems to prefer to mutate and transform, rather than destroy and rebuild, as in the case of the caterpillar becoming a butterfly:
But this step-by-step approach is not always enough, so acts of outright destruction in nature do sometimes occur — wildfires, earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis play a crucial role in clearing open space so that new forms of life can emerge.
This destructive dynamic may be best expressed through the archetype of the “firebird” or “phoenix” — a mythical being that consumes itself only to be reborn again as something even more awesome. As the raging firebird engulfs and destroys every living thing in its path, it also makes the underlying soil more fertile, so that new kinds of life can later take root. This fertilizing process of creative destruction is beautifully portrayed in the so-called “Firebird Suite” of Disney’s Fantasia:
Besides the pain and suffering they reap, such natural acts of destruction also exemplify the venerable Buddhist notion of “suchness” — that ineffable quality of something being intensely just as it is, as though creation itself were asserting its immanence, forcing us finally to pause and take notice.
In the aesthetics of Zen Buddhism, this quality of suchness or Tathātā is what it’s all about — teetering on the precipice between emptiness and presence, between illusion and belief — a quality we can taste in this poignant haiku by Issa, written upon the death of his four-year-old daughter:
This dewdrop world
It is but a dewdrop
And yet, and yet —
In our human affairs, the word “destruction” carries the difficult associations of genocide, holocaust, and other atrocious horrors of war — alongside more benign associations such as the demolition and renovation of an old house, or the cutting down of a tree to make firewood in winter.
Another ancient use of destruction is to provide an outlet for innate human urges, so that violence and rage don’t explode into an otherwise peaceful society. These regular acts of “ritual violence” have come in many forms throughout human history — from the most extreme acts of human sacrifice in Aztec and Mayan cultures, to the gladiator combat of ancient Rome, to the sun dances of the Lakota, to the ritual burning of effigies at festivals like Burning Man and Zozobra, to the sanctioned physical combat of competitive sports, and even to the winner-take-all scenarios of talent contests like American Idol and reality shows such as Survivor. By providing release valves for these innate human urges, these carefully-designed rituals help to channel the primal energy of destruction into safe and protected receptacles.
If this drive to destroy is indeed a part of us all, then how can we use it safely and wisely in our individual lives, to benefit ourselves, our families, and our communities?
We often think of destruction as a primarily physical act, but what about directing its energy at thought-forms, feelings, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs? What if we could destroy cynicism, apathy, self-deprecation, negativity, depression, or fear? What about destroying delusions, addictions, inherited patterns, and other kinds of limitations? How can we use the energy of destruction to help us create the life situations that we genuinely desire?
To discern the wise and appropriate use of destruction, we might look to the famous Sufi teaching of the “three gates,” usually attributed to Rumi. This teaching is designed to govern the use of “The Word” — the primordial creative force that lives within us all, which we deploy most directly through the power of speech. When deciding whether or not to speak a given thought-form into existence, Rumi advises us first to consult these three gates:
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind?
If the thought-form can pass through these gates, then it may be spoken — otherwise, silent restraint is advised.
Perhaps we could adapt these “three gates of using the word” (i.e. using creativity) to a corresponding “three gates of using the hammer” (i.e. using destruction):
Is the benefit worth the loss?
Is it the only good option?
Can it be done with compassion?
If the act of destruction can pass these three gates, then perhaps it can be put into practice through the careful design of an appropriate ritual.
In this fourth ritual of In Fragments, destruction is introduced as a partner in the process of creation. Using my grandfather’s steel sledgehammer and my mother’s white cotton sheet, I smash apart the stone fragments that were previously gathered in Linestone — breaking apart their uniqueness to uncover what they share.
As the ritual proceeds, the editing style of the film begins to respond to the repetitive strikes of the hammer, so that what is being hammered away at are not only fragments of stone, but also perception itself, which now enters the ritual process: mutating, adapting, transforming.
The title of this ritual, Not a Single Point, was inspired by a 1987 interview with video artist Bill Viola, who references the “cloudlike” quality of poetry and film — which never quite hew to any one “single point of meaning” but spread out instead like a dusty cloud of stone.
In your own frame of life, what are some wise and appropriate uses of destruction, and how might you create your own rituals to help you embody that process?
Remember those gates,
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