Monday, March 9, 2015

What's Your Relationship With Your Work?

Tracking 8"x 8" cold wax on panel
On my last post someone made the comment that they were interested in their relationship with their work.  Hmmm, I had never really thought about it. My relationship with my work? Did we need therapy or counseling, my work and I? Hmmm, I frequently think about my relationships with the people around me. I try to listen, I attempt compassion and understanding. I remind myself that I am not the centre of the universe.  I know, I know, that surprises you too, right?  But my paintings, that I spend so many hours with, do I ever think about these canvases and panels covered in paint in this relational kind of way??  Even this was telling, to relegate my work to the lot of "inanimate objects".  Do my paintings have a soul, do they have feelings and needs? It was a bit shocking to see my own insensitivity, up close and personal (well, I mean again :)  And perhaps you are a better painter and are tssking at me as you read, sucking air between your teeth and shaking your head.  I apologize for disturbing you in this way, really I do. I hope I have not caused any small capillaries to implode or your toe nails to fall off.

Crossing The Earth At Dusk 16"x20" 
And yet in this modern world of ours we frequently divide the world in this way, the animate, the inanimate, sentient beings and other, TV dinners and real food.  It is a type of unawareness I think. People who live(d) closer to the natural world perhaps are more aware of how the world is filled with energy and spirit that do not identify as sentient beings. Everything is alive in it's own way, don't you think?

In slight horror, I began to investigate my relationship with my work. It was a humbling experience to see that I am not a good listener.  In fact I am quite deaf to what my paintings might be saying to me most of the time.  If you were my painting, you wouldn't give me the time of day. I realized I am bossy, often beginning work without any enquiry as to what might be needed, to what the painting might want, suggest, be asking for.  You'd probably give me a smack upside the head if we worked in the same office.

I certainly am not at all good company for my work.  I rarely just hang out with it, sit and appreciate. I think I don't really know how to be a good companion to my work.  I watched a documentary a while back on Leonardo da Vinci and when he was painting The Last Supper he would visit the painting for days on end and just look at it, never lifting a brush. Now that's companionship, that's listening.

The Trees Are Calling Your Name 12"x12"
This whole relationship can of worms has prompted me to work in different ways, though I must say listening comes hard.  I see how the mind wants to get started when it  has just the tiniest idea, how it thinks it knows so much when it has considered so little. I have realized this promotes what I refer to as "mucking".  I have noticed that when I consciously generate feelings of warmth and appreciation for the parts of the work I like (instead of complaining about what I don't like) that the state generated is more conducive to good work.  It's all about process, right?

I notice a feeling of tenderness toward these little entities, these brave, new, embryos of paintings.  I can remember my Zen teacher used to say in relation to our practice and all the goofy things we do, "the eternal can wait forever, how long can you wait?"  I get the same feeling about the paintings.  They are in no hurry.  They humour, they tolerate and they wait.  They wait for me to learn, they wait for me to see, they wait for me to listen.  They are the best teachers.  Unlike me, they are never bossy or frustrated. They never demand or criticize.  I think sometimes they smile and wink and call gently from the corner.  And then they always look so pleased when I happen to get it right.  Who could ask for more in a relationship really?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Painting, Chopping Vegetables & A Bow To The Spiritual Badger

Why I Love The Wind 16"x20"
I was chopping vege for dinner one night with my daughter, who does some meditation coaching. "How's the painting going?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know", I said.  It seems like I move paint around on the canvas and never really like anything that turns up.  It feels like I paint the same thing over and over and feel frustrated that I'm not getting anywhere." She looked at me and said, "hmm, that sounds like the same thing you said two years ago."

"That does sound about right," I said, appreciating the honesty and her willingness to share even though I had a knife in my hand.

"So you're not getting anything you like when you paint? Do you know what you like?" she asked

"I like something light. I like some scratching and texture. I like greens and blues and neutrals, greys, soft transitions from one colour to another.  But I rarely seem to get something that pleases me."

16"x 16" Coming In For A Landing

"I wonder if you're seeing a painting as problem that you want solved and out of the way?" She pondered

"Hmm, that's true, I think.  I want a satisfying outcome without too much trouble.  And it feels like I've been at this for a long time without much reward.  It's interesting, because this conversation makes me think of my friend Jeane Myers over at Art It.  I love the way she thinks!  She really perks up when she has a creative problem to solve in a painting.  That's juicy to her and she rises to the challenge. It really makes her curious and interested."  (I also added inappropriately that I wanted her brain.)

"I also love that she says she learns from her paintings," I added.  It seems I'm not the best student and my paintings have given up on me.

"So," said the coachy daughter, "what if you focused more on being curious about the process when you go to paint, rather than the actual painting.

11"x14" How To Get From Here To There

So I made some notes so I could share with you (and with me) and the next time I went to paint I tried to remember to:

-If you are used to thinking of your creative work as a problem or fraught with problems, sense how this feels and try to adopt a different stance.
-Be curious about how you work, watching what you do and how it makes you feel (miraculously I am a whole lot neater when I paint after doing this.  Before I seemed to rush and a mess of brushes and paper grew around me. That made me feel unsettled as the chaos grew)
-Be curious about what emerges on the canvas.  Take time to stand back a lot more than usual.  Jeane talks about having a conversation with the painting.  I think a lot of the time I don't give the painting enough space to say anything. I am like the friend that blathers on. Poor painting never gets a word in edgewise.
-Notice how you feel inside. When I felt agitated and tight, I found it was time to stop and refocus, otherwise I went on to mucking (which could go on for a very long time and feel very unsatisfying.)  Sometimes it's just time to go for coffee, have a walk, take a break.
-Importantly, trust that you can solve any "creative situation" you find in front of you. (In other words, believe you are up to the task.)  This, I found creates a very powerful, positive feeling.
-Contemplate situations in life where you are successful and try to transfer that attitude to painting. Do you write with ease, cook confidently? How do you feel inside when you trust that things are going to work out?  Sometimes it's all about attitude.  Maybe it's always, all about attitude?
-Sometimes just do the opposite of what you might normally do to shake things up.  Do you always paint in a certain palette?  Do the opposite. Stand up. Sit down. Use paper. Listen to music, or different music. Try silence or spoken word.

I have found it so helpful to consider the deeper aspects of what I was doing and how I was approaching it. I learned first hand how doing the same thing over and over is the definition of insanity (or at least frustration).  I learned that focusing on the process, strangely creates a better outcome than focusing on the painting (or specific work at hand).

And I will end with a story that my coach/daughter told me about a yoga teacher that her friend called the "spiritual badger".  As they stood holding a really difficult pose, he said, "and how you do this, is how you do everything in life." With many bows to the spiritual badger.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

After Yesterday Before Tomorrow

Saturday's Flight 9"x12"

What you already are
Before the picnic
The ground of awakening
In the presence of a tree

Collect no jewels
A time of bewilderment
An inside job
Already free

No lock on the gate
Where hope is born
The idea of a journey
In the present tense

As you really are

Taking Refuge
In your present condition
Below the mind's radar

The truth about yourself
Sudden Radical Insight

No matter what

Some block is gone
A door has opened
Stepping outside
Not a bunch of thoughts

The whole world wants to stop here
A simple thing, Transformation
Lift your face to the sky

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Seasonal Koan: What's The Opposite of Namaste?

10"x10" Deep In The Forest
It's that time of year when the opportunity to see if you're enlightened offers itself up to you. It's kind of like a little gift disguised as family dressed up in holiday duds. It's our collective opportunity to put our practice where our mouth is, if you care to see it that way. You know that quip, "if you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family." Well here come the holidays. My mother used to say we all have our own "mishigas" (which means craziness in Yiddish) and this time of year brings it out.  Mostly we panic, grit our teeth and fall victim to our old familiar "pain speech".  Here they are, our "famous person(s) ringing the doorbell, all ready to drag us through our personal mishigas.  It's kind of like the reverse of "Namaste", it's "the pain in me recognizes the pain in you", and we're off to the races.  We become the living embodiment of the email that should have been left in the "draft" folder.

16"x16" Crossing The Inner Landscape

But there are other ways, really, I'm not kidding you, not that I'm so skilled, but I'm working on it. This fall I attended several retreats with a Buddhist teacher whose wisdom speaks directly to my heart: Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. He talks about how we are constantly "draining" ourselves, depleting our precious human battery. And it's bad enough when that happens to your car, but we tend to forget  about what's under our human hood. And when we feel our depletion do we know how to nourish and recharge ourselves? Do we think TV or a glass of wine, or a little treat might do the trick? Perhaps temporarily, but then we end right back there in drain mode. Tenzin Wangyal's teachings aim at connecting us with the stillness of the body, the silence of our speech and the spaciousness of our minds so that we might consistently nourish that deep place in us the is the source of our strength, peace, creativity and fearlessness.
10"x10" Notes From The Evening

How do we remember to pause and connect with our inner refuges of stillness, silence and spaciousness when Uncle Henry tells the same story for the 10th time?  Tenzin Wangyal offers us a great little trick. When we feel the tug of that pain that's just the reminder we need.  And mostly we're pretty familiar with those painful feelings, it's just we forget the next step.  We either sink deeply into the pain or reject it completely, or maybe dance between the two. His suggestion is that the nagging thoughts of the egoic mind that are constantly finding fault can remind us to connect with the stillness of our bodies. The nattering of our internal voice or perhaps our unkind speech to others is the reminder to connect with silence.  And our crazy imaginings, run wild can offer us the opportunity to sense the space that is always around and within us.

16"x16" Cloud Mountain

In his attempts to help us bring our practice into the parts of our life that need it the most he suggests we think of it as a game.  Our challenge is how can we win at this tricky, moving, ever challenging game of deinstalling the things that push our buttons.  This can help make our "problems" lively in  an upbeat way that encourages us to work with them rather than lament them or crumple from them into the perfect little Christmas ball.  What's your game this season?  May it be merry and bright. 

ps: with many thanks to technical wizardry of Lynette Monteiro for helping me retrieve this lost post from the ether. Many bows to her.  

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thrown By The Wild Horse of Painting

11"x14" oil & cold wax  "As The Light Falls"
The instructions are "never judge your meditation session".  It's just a sit and good for you that you put your bum on the cushion.  Hmm, couldn't the same be said for doing your creative work, whatever that is.  No, sitting on your journal or canvas does not count. But how do we know what's good or bad anyway?  You know the Taoist story of the villager with a horse? One day his horse runs off.  The villagers tell him how bad this is.  Hmm, says the farmer.  A while later his horse returns leading a wild horse home. And the other villagers tell him how good this is. Hmmm, again from the farmer of few words. His son breaks his leg after being thrown by the wild horse.  The villagers are all over this one. And so on.  You're getting the gist, right?  Read the full story here.

Why then is it so second nature for me to have this very visceral sense that a painting session is good or bad? Human nature?  Habit?  Yes to both, but I think it's about trust.  It seems to me that you need to trust that what is happening is okay, whatever it is.  It's here, it's in your lap, then just say okay.  That's the recipe for non suffering. That's it.  You have no idea where your work is going, how it will turn out but you trust that what you did today is enough  It's not that I'm getting all new agey, woo woo or fatalistic on you.  It's just logic.  Think about it.  How could it be any other way?  That would be arguing with what is...  and you know where that gets you.  It's not like we lie there like the studio door mat, all limp and lifeless and covered with paint (though I have been known to do this).  We can adjust our course tomorrow.  We can learn from what transpired.  That is never negated by accepting what is. But what just happened is over, done, case closed, unless you want to get all quantum on me but that's a whole other subject.

Another thing I've known in my head but not in my paint brush is that you need to get the mind, the judging, evaluating one out of the way when you work. Sometimes I wish someone would just tell me how and put me out of my misery.  But it's not supposed to happen like that.  You have to figure it out for yourself or else it doesn't have any meat on the bones, just a dry stick to chew on.  And that's not very tasty or sustaining.
12"x12" cold wax & oil "A Day In The City"
Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche talks about painting until the mind let's go and then you have a painting.  I did this quite by accident the other day when I painted the pieces above.  I had spent some studio time mucking about and I mean mucking.  I was feeling so discouraged that I got out the black paint and covered this piece which was originally light green and turquoise.  You will see small children do this with art work and for them it is exploration.  For me it was more like a tantrum, an "I'm done here." And then some stuff started to happen on the canvas that felt pretty exciting. There was some recognition of something new and authentic looking back at me. I left the studio feeling like I'd had an aha moment.  It was  an accidental experience of letting go.  It was more like giving up, there was nothing left to gain or loose.

On a foot note I felt pretty inspired to get back to the studio to explore.   But after a bit I noticed old mind sniffing and slinking around trying to recreate the same experience (more good, please, easy, nice, thank-you).  And you know how that turns out.  But  there is a little trust there now where only wanting used to live.  And its resting on the fact that everything is fine as it is and anything can happen at any time.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Blood And Bones Of Art

The Archeology of Clouds
If part of an athlete's success resides in the realm of the mind, then an aspect of our art practice must rest on how we use our minds when we do our art, no? This makes a lot of sense to me and my mind and yet the pull of habit is strong, that unconscious part made up of synapses and neural pathways, transmitters and receptors. Somewhere inside I know better but here's the pattern I fall into.  I look at work I love and feel inspired. It feels like pointing myself in the right direction to immerse myself in what I find beautiful, what I'd like to create, right?

Well it's not working for me.  It never has, really.  In looking at my frustration and how things are going I realize it's not this pre-painting activity that's the problem, it's what my mind does with it.   It's like the car isn't the problem when you get a speeding ticket, it's the driver. Somehow the focus for me becomes (perhaps always has been) on the outcome of the painting process.  I am looking for something; something that resonates, something that fits my idea of pleasing.  And that very act of wanting stands in the way of actually getting what I'm looking for, if that makes any sense.  It's like building a wall when you want a doorway and then wondering why you can't get out of that dark little room. It's a good thing I'm not a building contractor.

Imagining The Wind 12"x12"
And it's not that I haven't heard the part about focusing on the "process".  My friend Jeane, of ART IT embodies this idea of learning from your painting, of diving deeply into "just working", of finding it exciting and exploratory. She discovers whole continents of interest and delight in her studio. To spend time with her, as I did last year (here's the blog post I wrote about that) is not only a joy but an education for the heart.  But then there's the return to habit.

I understand all this in my head about process vs product and that often is the very first place we understand things, in the head. But as my old Zen teacher used to say, "we need to understand it in our blood and bones", whatever it is, to really integrate it at a functional level.  It's become so painfully obvious to me lately that I am heading off to the blood and bones department right now.  I am setting my "intention", a big word in Buddhist circles.  I am turning this sinking ship and paint brush around. I am choosing to turn my mind in the direction of process and learning from the painting, of having a conversation with the work.  I have witnesses now.  You heard me, didn't you?

The Secret Life of Moss 11"x14"
I do a lot of "imposing" on the canvas, rather than conversing "with".  In fact I'm quite surprised my canvases haven't filed for divorce or just walked out on me.  But they're a patient lot.  My old Zen teacher used to say another thing, "the eternal can wait for as long as you need, how long can you wait?"  I used to hate that word eternal, so churchy, but I forgive the cleric language now.  Whatever it is you need to do, whatever change you want to make in your life, the universe is patient, like my canvas. It just stands there looking at you without judgment, "did you get that?" I won't say it's never rude or harsh, but it always just stands by waiting for us to get the message.  If not, the message will be broadcast again, perhaps at louder volume or closer intervals.

So here I am, all bloody and boney, standing at the temple door of life (or is that a wall?) in the company of some of my estranged canvases (oh, oh I hear the call to the lawyer going out now).  I'll keep you posted on how it all works out for me.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Throwing Out The Emotional Barometer

36"x36"  Mixed media " Across The See"
It's always interesting to me what comes up on my radar for examination.  Last week after a couple of social interactions I became aware of the subtle (or not so subtle) measuring that was going on inside me.  What was this strange barometer thing constantly scanning the internal air pressure?  This interaction left me feeling good, that one made me feel slightly unsettled. And then I could see how these feelings lingered and flavoured the the day.  At the end of the week I could see how truly unpleasant all this unconscious measuring really was, how the sheer movement of the scales made me feel a bit internally seasick.

Rather than just being with whatever was I was using my experience in the world to determine something, using my emotional life as some sort of guiding compass. This underground current that I suspect stirs in all of us wants to weigh and measure and tot up a score.  How am I doing?  We may only notice the measuring by the feeling it leaves.  It goes on at Olympic speed, mostly under the radar.
24"x24" mixed media "Travel Plans"
If I don't notice the process, then I use the feelings generated to navigate my world by.  Hmmm, seems a pretty shaky basis to steer the old ship by.  At a deeper level if I want to simplify it, I want life to make me feel good.  I believe somehow that my internal state is determined by the outer world  and what goes on there. I keep track of how that's all going with my barometer.  Sheesh, I'm tired just thinking about the craziness of my internal life! But weighing and measuring tools in the slippery hands of the ego are never a good thing.  Given the Western mind's relationship with itself and the nature of scales I am never going to come out pounds ahead.  And to digress, is this crazy world a good place to get our sanity from?

 In his book "The Tibetan Yogas of Dream And Sleep" Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche tells us that these emotional reactions I'm thinking about arise from "karmic traces". He says, "All moods, thoughts, emotions, mental images, perceptions, instinctive reactions are governed by the workings of karma" (karma simply meaning for every action there is a reaction).  Act with anger once, the seeds of karma for future anger are sown.  And ditto for everything else.

His explanation offers me information on where these "emotional" responses of mine come from, feelings that feel so puzzling sometimes. Their arising is based in past action and contains no conscious intention for how I might want to live my current or future life.  In a way, if I don't consider this I am held hostage by my past (both from this life and past ones, if you care to see it that way).

So as the week wound down I realized that it was unlikely that I could cart this barometer off to a thrift store and get rid of it.  But what I could do was see it for what it was, a very unreliable measuring tool that I could simply see and choose not to use as a barometer. Maybe it's more like a laugh meter or an alarm button or a kitchen timer reminding me to wake up?  How about you?  What's in your internal measuring chest?