Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Waxing & Waning Of The Inner Landscape

10"x10" cold wax on panel

Almost a week has passed since I loaded the last wet painting into my car at the end of the week long workshop I attended with Rebecca Crowell.  I was drawn to the quiet strength of Rebecca's work when I saw it in Santa Fe four years ago. So to find her not far from home ( Vancouver Island Art Workshops) seemed an opportunity.  The days were long but structured well between painting and presentations. I love the ability of cold wax to deliver texture and surprise through the use of built up layers. It was fun to watch the different ways each of the 12 artists manipulated the same material, from bold graphic work to soft and ethereal.  There was an open invitation to work until 9 pm each evening. I knew ahead of time I wouldn't do this, given the restraints of both body and mind.  We had tons of workspace which was great considering that we worked on multiple, slow drying panels.  If you were stuck on one, you could turn your eye to another. Experiment was encouraged and we were reminded that finished work was not the goal, though the mind often wandered from this. I think I might have needed a flashing neon sign over my work tables to keep me on top of those.

There were lots of take-aways from the week about materials and process and points of contemplation.  And  I expect things will continue to slowly seep and settle into the blood and bones of me and my paintings.  At least I hope so. It is always so interesting to see what we absorb and internalize from any teaching.  It has everything to do with where we are in our life and work and what rings in our ear afterwards and how we synthesize it.  I will continue to explore questions like "what inspires me", "what do I hope to express in my work".

As painting is such a solitary practice it was nice to paint in the company of others for a change, to share a laugh or an observation.  Participants were generous and open. The atmosphere was supportive but with a strong focus on work. Kind of like a silent retreat in some respects, you appreciate the energy of others while focusing internally.

Cold wax and charcoal on terra skin

I am an incurable people watcher. It's so much fun to watch human nature unfold before you (your own and others).   I found myself equally interested in how people expressed their personal energy and shared it with others.  How did we manage our needs, our frustrations, our stress, how did our habitual reactions play out?  There were parallel teachings going on for me, always the art, and always the dharma. We are such a curious bunch, us humans.  I watched myself make a conscious effort to be who I am: quiet, quirky but friendly. Not always, but sometimes I can see my own inclinations to chat or engage as slightly needy (we want to be part of the tribe, a respected member, even).  I decided to check this need at the door (as much as possible) in the interest of work and experiment with how that felt. It was fun to watch this impulse arise and subside and to just be, to just work.

I watched my own human inclination to enjoy praise but reminded myself what a false wind this is, being constantly tossed about in the opinions of others.  I have learned that outer acceptance is a pale friend compared with my own inner acceptance of whatever is.  This has been such an important lesson for me over the years.  My strong inclination to feel frustrated with what I achieve and then to fall into mucking and discouragement came to visit. Sometimes it took a good while to catch myself and redirect.

More Cold wax & charcoal on terra skin

The one on one exchanges with Rebecca were helpful. In my search for "form" in my work she suggested the question to toss about, "what shapes out there in the world do I like?" To my surprise I was initially stumped by this question. And perhaps a search for form might better be thought of as an evolution of detail?  I am thinking it also has to do with variation in value?

And after my hours of painting I returned each evening to the charming home of artist, Carole Reid and our lovely feline host Isabelle.  I have never met a friendlier cat. She looked forward to me sitting on the couch each evening so she could purr and sleep and I could let the day's work steep and percolate.  It was a great house swap that Carole wrote about here and here.

I don't know if I had any expectations going into the workshop. Perhaps not overtly, but I think there are always hidden ones simmering below the surface.  I feel fortunate to have been part of this richly textured week and look forward to following the tendrils and threads as they spread themselves out into my work.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Two Things

36"x36"  From This Shore
I am thinking about 2 things. Not at the same time because that would cause my pea brain to explode and pea green would be a hideous colour on the walls...  But I digress into my ideas about colour theory and home decor.

 I've been mulling over the idea of "familiarity" after hearing a comment by a favourite teacher of mine, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. He answered a question about why we find it so hard to keep up a meditation practice by saying: "We are more familiar with our pain, our blockages, our darkness than with our bliss and warmth. We are trying to become more familiar with these qualities by going inside to our inner refuge. But what are you more familiar with your breakfast or your morning practice?  If you don't have your breakfast you will miss it because you know the immediate effect of your breakfast but you're not sure of the immediate effect of your practice so you go where there is no doubt.  If you trust your practice as much as you trust your breakfast your life will begin to change for the better." 

How many people have you heard say, "I can't meditate".  Maybe you have even said it yourself?  It seems simple and obvious really, that we are drawn to the familiar.  And yet we don't see how it blocks us from doing or being the things that we aspire to, those things that we have "intention" toward but somehow don't get to.  When we talk about familiarity we are really addressing the pull of habit in a slightly different way.  But somehow it seems more doable if I think to myself that I am increasing my familiarity with something, rather than feel that I am pushing against or trying to break a habit.  Perhaps it is just about language, but then language is a powerful thing.

I've also been looking at the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) difference between "thinking" and paying "attention".  This seems central to meditation and any awareness practice.  I am often startled to see that when I think I have been "aware" of something, I am actually just thinking about it.   Jan Frazier describes the difference  so clearly in her book, "The Freedom of Being" : "One of the great discoveries in the life of spiritual inquiry is the difference between attention and thought.... Attention is encounter, without any charge to it. It simply looks. There is a feeling of stillness... Attending is simply being with, acknowledging the presence of something.. There's no resistance, no mental activity, no reactivity... Thinking involves processing, applying prior learning, projecting ahead. There's a tendency to label, analyze, imagine and rehash... Thinking about something is more likely to stir anxiety, excitement, obsessiveness, unlike attending which is more calm."

36"x36" Ode to Jimmy Wright

And don't get me wrong I am not tossing out thinking with the bath water, it serves a perfectly good function (the bath water), in it's place.  But the fact is we would suffer less and lead lives of much more sanity if much of the time we simply attended or were aware of things.  Ideas and solutions could bubble up out of this spacious place of awareness, instead of the dog's breakfast that comes from chewing the bone of our familiar thoughts, especially when something troubles us (says she to herself).

I am all about the words this week. A friend has me listening to some Stephen Batchelor talks that he wants to talk about and I liked Batchelor's translation of delusion, the last of the 3 poisons that Buddhism refers to (greed, hate and delusion). Instead of delusion, Batchelor talks about bewilderment.  I certainly observe my own bewilderment often enough. I can cosy up to bewilderment. I reserve delusion for others :)

So there it is. I have spent part of my week pondering words and part purging old photographs in an effort to clear away some of the things in my home that I never use or even look at. Last week it was clearing away the snowbanks on the old paper trail.  It feels like a little ritual of "as on the outside, so is the inside". It must be Spring.  And of course there is always time to paint.  Hibernation seems to be lifting. I am rising earlier.  I feel more energetic to actually "do" things, rather than simply nestle into the lair.

Wishing you some good words of your own to explore, some glimpses of Spring and perhaps the inclination to clean a drawer or two in either your inner or outer homes, or both.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Sweet Heart of Winter

Winter Monks 20"x24" acrylic and collage

It could be the winter of our discontent -- or not.  Brutal temperatures and storms are blasting their way across the landscape. The weather has gone mad in many places. Here on the west coast of Canada, I am really ineligible to comment on the weather lest you bombard me with snow balls and sharp icicles.

But winter still exists here in lotus land, with it's grey, foggy days, shortened by how the sun brushes by our tilted, blue sphere. Winter has its effect on sentient beings, whether we care to admit it or not, whether we choose to live in a big city and carry on a pace that hardly nods in the direction of the short, cold days or whether we batten down the hatches for winter. And for some reason unknown to me, this year I am embracing the full heart of winter as it exists here. Sharon Zappha Barfoot wrote about her experience of winter in a much snowier place here.  And wherever you live the question seems to me, do we resist what is or do we somehow enter into it? Do we acknowledge our place in the natural world or do we live in separation from it? Do we try to make light out of dark, in either our inner or outer worlds? These are the bigger questions for me?  To what lengths will we go to sustain our delusion? Where do we shine the flashlight of our awareness?

Before winter's weathery course was set, something in me knew I was going to savour hibernation this year. Other years I have tried, but ended up doing a lot of grumbling about the darkness and feeling lonely and hurumphing that this year I might go away for a bit. But as I watched others plan their holidays and listened to stories of winter getaways to come nothing was tempted in me.  No beaches called to me, no warm breezes beckoned, no spots on the map flashed hotly, come here. Instead like a dozy black bear I slowed my pace and prepared for the delicious decent into hibernation. My cave is warmed by a fire, the lair offers all manner of comforts. And the internal world has many hillsides, rock walls to scale and tumultuous oceans to explore. I am never bored.

16"x20" Oil & Cold Wax  "Tracking"

It is interesting to watch the slowed call to activity.  I have become some lumbering creature of the earth. The slowness of the day sometimes feels shocking to me. How could I get so little done? And yet I seem powerless against this feet in molasses feeling, like I am some small creature ruled by a masterful force. There is a gentle joy to it. I am simply surprised how appropriate it feels, how it seems to be calling me to some deeper state.  There is a feeling that there is purpose and a reason for this, that there is some strange call to a landscape deep within.

There is lots of time for meditation and here's one of my favourite guided meditations. It's called Nourishing Your Inner Being and that feels like that's what this winter is about, offering internal nourishment that will support more active times.  This is my winter project if I need to give it a name.  And in nourishing this inner being there is a feeling that I am nourishing all parts of my life: the inner life, the spirit, my art and writing life, and my physical body; that when the winter earth thaws and the days lengthen there will be a natural movement into the next season.

I realize I am fortunate to have the time to live in harmony with this season, to sleep late, to be still, to do less. Even here where the animals of the woods don't hibernate, they slow. We see the deer and the squirrels less often, the birds are less busy. Only the tiny hummingbird keeps up its frantic pace. Living close to the natural world reminds me on a daily basis of how the planet sustains itself, cycling back and forth to create balance.

And so that is where you'll find me these days, meditating by the fire, contemplating and reading, sipping tea, painting a little and residing in the deep heart of winter.  No matter what your circumstances I invite you in ways large or small to join me in tasting the sweetness of winter. It's about creating a different story around the real or imagined winter life, or perhaps creating no story at all?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tip Toe Through The Demons

Cold Wax, Oil, Pan pastel 10"x10"

Yesterday I went to a day long teaching on "Chod" practice.  What, you say, does this involve chocolate or shoes?  No, not for the moment anyhow. It's a practice from the Bon tradition, a lovely Shamanic, Buddhist tradition from Tibet that predates Buddhism. I love that the originator of the practice was a woman, a rather old woman,Machig Labdron,1054-1155.

The one day teaching on chod was a bit like an amuse bouche, a little something tiny and delicious to make you feel happy inside. It's an ancient practice laced with a large helping of fierceness and depth. The shamans who practiced chod used to travel around to fearful places known to have bad energy (are you thinking Walmart? I thought so.) They hung out in charnal grounds (places of sky burials) and generally worked to tame and release dark energies. They cured illnesses, turned around epidemics and delved deeply into their fears. Quite the calling card.

Chod translates as "cutting through".  And in the modern world, as urban, householder shamans, what we're cutting through is attachments, those things we think we must have to make us happy.  Those things we absolutely need. Fill in the blanks.  What is that for you?  In the 42" screen view of your life, what must happen for it to be okay?  In the minutiae of daily life, how are things supposed to shake down? What attachments are so subtle that they breath you without you even noticing? Do you think things should be fair? People respectful of you?

 In my world I like things being reasonably easy, not too much trouble. I like it that way, and start to grumble when things don't comply with this world view.  I have opinions and beliefs that I consider right. Many of the things we want and like are fine in themselves, it's the "needing", the insistence that tips us over into attachment and trouble.  Geshe YongDong who led the Chod teaching said, "we have 84,000 thoughts a day. Sixty percent of those thoughts are about our attachments.  Any time you find yourself in a struggle, you've got attachment."  That's a sobering thought that I'm probably not attached to.

Ego clinging and fear is where the chod knife aims to cut, aiming to sever the attachment we have to ourselves, because ultimately one day we will have to give up our bodies, our loved ones and all the accessories we have accumulated.  Our practice is to learn to give up "stuff", views,  expectations as we travel around with our trusty chod knife.  When we get to the ultimate giving up, it will be less difficult, since we have been practicing internal and external closet cleaning in the days of our life. That's the plan and chod is the road map. Geshe YongDong pointed out that we are just renting this skin covered real estate. We don't get to keep it in any lasting way.

It's a shamanic practice so of course there are songs and a lovely little Damaru drum and some bells that get played to work on the unseen energies that bind us to our attachments, to give us the unseen help that we need to navigate the path toward living in harmony with what is.  We make our plans, we buy our stuff, we go about our daily lives.  But we spend our energies on learning to be more content and peaceful and generous. If we are successful it becomes less about us and the demons tiptoe off into the night.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Where Are All the Imps & Mischievous Ones?

Being The Pink Dog of Happiness
I have something serious to talk to you about. It's been up on my radar for a bit.  Yesterday I began a conversation with myself about it and then I continued the conversation today with my daughter.  I realized it's a seldom discussed subject and perhaps we are all really starved for it. Before you peek at the next sentence, can you guess what it is?  If this were a card I'd have a little bit of paper covering the word but I can't do that here. Hopefully your crafty eyes have not darted ahead and you have filled in your own special word about what you think we all need more of in our lives and are not really getting.

I've been thinking about fun. Fun and lightness, lightheartedness, and my personal favourites foolishness, perhaps even impishness.  Where are the imps and mischievous ones these days?  It seems to me what our culture often sells us as fun is merely escapism and indulgence. Not to say that a movie or a novel, a dish of ice cream or a new toy can't be fun.  But at the end of the day how does it make you feel, that's the question I've been asking myself.  Do I feel nourished and restored or do I just need more? Do I feel joyful and revived or a little dirty?  Am I  on the prowl for something else? Or do I feel a little used and empty after that last new sweater or the eggnog latte?  Those are the the little elf questions that have been popping up and asking me to look at the details that make up my life.

An ocean of fun at Tofino, BC

Our culture is so busy convincing us of all the things we need to have and do to have fun, messing with our heads and hearts in sly marketing kinds of ways.  Just today as I waited to watch a Ustream teaching, a kindle advert told me that if I liked to read, I'd want the new kindle. It showed me happy pictures of young women with cats on their laps, cozy sleeping partners nestled beside them.  Surely my life would be more fun with a kindle?  And if I didn't buy a new kindle was the implication, I didn't like to read? Fun it seems has been hijacked, kidnapped, gagged and tied by the advertising industry, made into a thing, a lifestyle.  They have sucked all the life out of fun and put a price tag on it (whoops, that little rant was no fun was it?) Note to self, the truth is not always fun. Back to fun.  Are we having any yet?

When I took the awakening joy course, James Baraz asked people to do things that were fun for them.  Hmmm, a lot of us had to stop and think about that.  How do I have fun?  What do I regard as fun? Do you have some fun everyday?  I think often I am so busy getting done what needs to be taken care of, that I forget about fun.  I often choose work.  I like to cross those things off my to do list and fun isn't on it.  I have even watched myself doing things that I think should be fun and realized for whatever reason, that I'm not really having fun, I'm not fully engaged.  I'm half there, watching myself, watching others.  I might be noticing petty annoyances (it's cold out) or thinking about the next thing I have to do.

Fun Spots Tofino BC

I once heard a yoga teacher make an interesting comment.  She said something like, "I pretty much resist everything, except lying on the couch drinking a latte."  And I could identify with that!  I could see how I look forward to things until it's time to do them and then by some strange twist of mind, I'd rather stay home or do something else.  I read some research a while ago that made me realize I'm not alone.  People expressed the most happiness when "planning a vacation".  Not actually taking the vacation, but planning it was the fun part.  Hmmm.

So I realized a couple of things.  Culturally fun isn't valued for adults.  And many of us don't really know what is truly fun for us, what feeds us and nourishes us.  I'm not talking about fun substitutes, you know the tofurkey of fun, nope I'm talking about the meaty, luscious, drippy stuff that makes us smile from the inside out, leaves us feeling full and satisfied, corners of the mouth turned upwards.  And to find that thing we have to be like the Sherlock Holmes of fun, snooping around for signs, just the smallest ones, for those mid afternoon shafts of sunlight across the floor, the handful of paint chips we surreptitiously collected at the hardware store for no reason at all other that we like those colours.
A little Buddha 6"x6"

The more I explored the idea of fun, the more I realized that like so many things, it was an attitude of mind, something that comes from the inside and radiates out, not the other way around.  If you spend time with children, you probably know about fun.  They don't need much, a couple of fingers to turn into a spider, a cardboard box that becomes a house.  Fun is everywhere if you know "how" to find it.

You know how people pick words that they want to focus on for the next year, important words, weighty, thoughtful words like silence and love.  I've never been very successful with that. My words usually crinkle up and dry out by the first week of January.  Some years I find them all mouldy and sour under the couch.  But maybe FUN could be my word for 2014.  Maybe at the end of 2014 if I explored fun with enough gusto I'll have a great big freeway of neural pathways with on and off ramps that flash the word "fun" in big neon letters.  Who knows, but it could be fun.  I'll keep you posted.  And if you really want to have a little fun, watch this bonus video below.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Geography of the Art and our Internal Compass

"Geography of the Heart" New Work at Cafe Talia 
It's been a weird couple of weeks in my world: time consuming email crash, got the flu, vacuum stopped working, then pretty much right after I stopped whining a largish painting sold and I got a small art show hung.  As I watched it all unfold and unravel, it was interesting to observe.  Again I was reminded of my preference for things to unfold as "I like". You've heard me talk about this before. Of course you say, who wishes for the flu, who hopes to spend 2 days mopping up after an explosion in  their inbox?  Excellent point. But the subtle thing is the mind's arguing with what is, evidenced by impatience, grumbling, imagining that things should be otherwise.  When the desirable things arrived I could even see the slightly edgy excitement of them, which felt uncomfortable in the body.  There was a subtle background note of the nose sniffing around for more "good stuff" as the "desirable" unfolded.  I could see the imbalance at both ends of the spectrum.

At one point a line from a Zen poem popped into my mind: "the way is not difficult for those who do not pick and choose" . Here's the whole poem if you're interested: "Affirming Faith In Mind".  As my mind staggered back to centre I realized I wasn't chicken little and the sky wasn't falling.  This was simply life unfolding as it does and I could do what needed to be done and not terrorize myself with whining, clutching and looking like an embodiment of Edvard Munsch's "The Scream"(perhaps that's a little too dramatic?).  I sometimes forget that it is my railing against what is, rather than the circumstances, that really makes life suck.

Cafe Talia with painting "Continents of the Heart"
It reminds me of a teaching story about a farmer who lets his old horse loose and it runs away. The villagers say, "that's too bad."  The farmer says, "who knows?"  The next day the old horse returns followed by a beautiful wild stallion.  The villagers say, "that's wonderful, now you have 2 horses."  The farmer says, "who knows?" The story continues.  Here's the link to the full story but I know you're getting the gist of the story: "how do we know what's good or bad, really?"  And for me this is such a good reminder of how small our focus is.  How do we really know?  The most helpful position is to simply be with what is and take the next step that needs to be taken.

The Density of Air 12"x24"

 I have been reading some interesting stuff by a German doctor named Rudiger Dahlke who talks about the fact that the human mind is so drawn to divide things up into light an dark and wanted and unwanted.  Even our word de-cision means to cut in two.  He warns about chasing "the light" and how one side of a pair is likely to draw in it's opposite, in it's attempt to seek balance.  Harmony and balance are what create health.

Crossing The Fields in Winter

Dahlke has an interesting view of illness.  He says our illnesses are in fact messages from our bodies about imbalances or things that are missing in our lives  that we have consciously rejected or ignored.  Our symptoms are telling us we need to deal with these things.  I find this so interesting.  Of course the trick in this is to hear the message accurately.  I think part of why I find this so interesting is that it feeds into this duality of picking and choosing, of liking and not liking what comes up in our lives.

peeking in the door at Cafe Talia

I will end with a quote about "Geography of the Heart" that I used in my artists statement at Cafe Talia:

“... Setting the compass of our heart, no matter how rough the storms, how difficult the terrain, even if we have to back track around obstacles, our direction is clear.”
- Jack Kornfield

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Rushing Toward Beauty & Building Resilience

8"x10" Footprints On The Earth Oil & Cold Wax

While I was painting this afternoon I noticed at one point, how much I was in a hurry to get a part of the painting that I didn't like covered up. That little palette knife was just doing 90 in a school zone.  I could feel the rushing, the almost breathless way I went after the offending spot.  And I thought to myself, "isn't this interesting?  What's that all about?"  And it struck me that this is very like me in many parts of my life, this lack of tolerance for the imperfect, for the messy, a reaction that often leads to feelings of frustration.

Feeling sick?  Let's get that out of the way.  Messy kitchen?    Messy life?   Let's get that cleaned up. A Longing for problems to disappear in a poof.  Hmm... in a hurry to make the ugly; beautiful, the imperfect; less flawed.  A magnetic draw towards beauty and perfection.  Definitely encouraged by our culture, I think we all have this in varying degrees.

8"x10" Uncovered Oil and Cold Wax

And aiming oneself in the direction of clean and tidy and beautiful is a fine intention, let's not get weird here. It's perhaps the rush away from mess and chaos, that requires reflection.  And how we handle the movement from what we "find undesirable" to it's counterpart is vital to our well being, I think.

It came to me how much depth and complexity I rob myself of, when I hurry to get things all "nice" without appreciating the nuances of messy.  Perhaps I miss finding the interesting hidden line or shape, or a new direction in a painting I am in a hurry to get resolved.
16"x16" Tethered  Oil & Cold wax

Maybe I am thinking about things in this way because I've been dealing with a dental adventure that found me having a tooth extracted last week.  Around the same time I came across a German doctor who writes about finding meaning in illness. His take is that the healing lives in the more complicated crevices of understanding, buried in the deeper meaning of our symptoms, instead of in the headlong rush to get those symptoms out of the way. In the same breath that it makes sense to me, I also want to get on with what interests me (some habits die a slow painful death)!  I've gathered my arsenal of natural remedies and am marching my little holistic army toward that dental infection.  The inclination to be well is fine, don't get me wrong, it is the energy we bring to it that's important, I think.

I was reminded of the quality of "resilience" in my work, my health and some frustrating encounters with Samsung's customer service this week. I listened to a talk by Joan Borysenko a couple of weeks ago on "stress hardiness" or resilience and it really resonated with me. Unfortunately I can't link you to that talk because it's no longer available but here's a similar one. She talked about the 3 C's of stress hardiness: 1. Commitment- a sense of purpose and engagement with the world.  2. Control- a belief that our actions can make a difference.  3.  Challenge - an understanding that life is constantly changing but viewing that change as exciting rather than scary.  Here's a nice little blogpost someone wrote about it.

I am really working on #3, viewing the less desirable ones as exciting.  How about you? I wish you a stress hardy week.