The Mindful Mona Lisa: Bridges and Cities

By Max Herman



Imagine a city with no people, not a single one.  Is it still a city? 

What is a city?

We can all associate the idea of a human city with a simple architecture, the city wall.  It separates the city like a cell from its surrounding environment.  It has gates to allow transit in and out, which can be closed when needed.  The etymology is “where one sleeps.”

Imagine a bridge with no people.  Is it still a bridge?

What is a bridge?

A bridge carries people or goods.  It can be within a city, or outside a city.  It can connect two different cities.  A bridge can act as a gate, a point of control of transit.  “Beam or log” is the etymology.

How are cities and bridges similar? 

A city is a bit like a circle, and a bridge a line.  One is defined more by rest and residence, the other by travel.  Both often exist in tandem: where people build walls, they also often build bridges.  They are both infrastructural.  A city is more like a node and a bridge a link.  There are physical similarities in the construction of each.  Bridges connote roads, and cities buildings.  Cities are like cells or organs, and bridges are like vessels or nerves. 

In the Mona Lisa, the bridge represents to me our transit from the pre-technological era to today, and the garment our lived technological environment.

To really understand bridges and cities, we cannot think of them as built of stone, glass, and steel only.  They are mostly made of people, the people who use them and are affected by their use.  They are constituted quite literally by the bodies of their people.  These bodies contain brains, and these brains contain minds – every single one, of any age or origin, all the time.

A brain is somewhat like a city, in that it has a boundary with input/output, plus links or connections to other brains by way of sensory bridges.  A brain is made up of a vast number of connections, between individual neurons, structures, muscles and organs, sense perception, and so on in immense diversity.  Yet the number of connections cannot be infinite or else the brain could not find equilibrium, rest, or consistency of any sort.

In meditation we slow down the inputs and outputs of the brain for a while.  We are awake – meditation is not the same as sleep – but the activity is low, a resting alertness.  Activating our internal Default Mode Network allows the brain to integrate and function as a whole, to balance and become subtle, for complexity to find clarity and form.  It is the foundational process of temet nosce and thus ultimately of all art and science, all that connects us.

The human element of our world’s cities and bridges can be invisible at times but it is the most important variable in our past, present, and future. 

How is each of us a city?  How is each of us a bridge?

Leonardo wrote: “Human subtlety...will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature, because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.”



Next week: water and meditation