Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Zen Bean Counting

I've been thinking about "comparisons" today.  I watched as I worked myself into a bit of a funk a couple of days ago and it was all the result of comparing myself to others.  It's a no win game (worse than a lottery ticket) and one we play all the time.  It's unpleasant little fingers start in one place and reach out quietly into all sort of mischievous places.

The trouble started after I visited a few artists websites whose work I love, one in particular, Martha Marshall whose work I find to have a wonderful sense of spontaneity, life and joy.  I love her use of colour and form.  Then comes the thought.  I wish my paintings looked like that.  I wish my work had more of a sense of freedom and spontaneity  and blah, blah, blah.

Comparison seemed to be the order of the day.  A conversation with a senior Zen student left me feeling not very wise.  He was filled with compassion and understanding and wisdom in a quiet non judgmental way.  His stories were wonderful and he always seemed to know the right thing to say. And then came the thought.  I wish I were more like that, I wish I were more wise.  And then an internal feeling that was less than pleasant.  Just that felt sense of you know.... yukiness, you've been there.

And then I went off to my studio to paint.  So guess what?  How do you think that little painting session went?  If you guessed , less than stellar, you'd be taking home some money.  Nothing seemed to go right.  I didn't like anything I did and things seemed to lurch from bad to worse.  I could see the lack of confidence in the way I applied the paint, the tenuous strokes, the way I mucked it about, then wiped it off, applied it again and wiped it off again.  And then the light went as the afternoon burned itself out and it was time to clean up

What did I learn?  Well I learned that I've been here before, down this well trod road of self comparison.  I could see that there is nothing wrong in admiring another persons work or spiritual training, its what you do with it.  Do I use it to beat myself up or as a source of inspiration?  How would my painting afternoon have gone if these encounters would have made me feel invigorated and inspired?  

 But when I see something I love and start the mental bean counting I am in trouble.  If I assign the most beans to them I feel bad and my work (or day) responds accordingly.  If I win the pile of beans this time,  I feel the dry tickle of mean spiritedness and  lack of generosity stick in my throat.  So comparison is like a buttered crazy carpet, it heads downhill fast.  But we do it all the time, slip into it, like a comfortable old sweater.  It may be torn at the elbow, covered in pills but it is what we reach for.

And when I looked deeper and said "what's this all about?"  I could see it was just another manifestation of the human predicament of  "I am not good enough,"   one of the five hindrances in Buddhism, self doubt.  We all spend our time with this one if we're willing to be truthful with ourselves.  And what is the antidote?  Well I guess first it is to see with clear eyes what I'm getting up to and feel its destructive power. And then I think there are creative options. Maybe I can remind  myself that I could compose a different ending to the same story, or  I could just let go of the story altogether.  See the paintings, beautiful, hear  the Zen stories, wonderful, do my painting, wash the brushes.  


  1. Carole, what an honor to be even mentioned in your blog. Thank you.

    Secondly, my very limited exposure to Buddhist principles seems to recall something about "wishing." There's no wishing in Buddhism, is there? Like no crying in baseball. I can't imagine that there would be.

    Nice achievement if one can reach it, right? Your last lines say it all.

  2. I use google alerts for "Zen Paintings" and your blog came up . Thank you for writing.

  3. Hi Martha & Lori

    Thanks both of you, for stopping by! You're right Martha, that what we're aiming for is a state of non wishing, but alas this is not always what our minds get up to. From my Zen teacher, the practice I learned is to look and see what I am really doing with my mind (otherwise how can I change it to a more wholesome state (one of non wishing). It's a process of getting to know ourselves, catching ourselves at our unhelpful little games and ultimately letting it all go and just paint and wash the brushes like the zen masters!

  4. re Loris

    Oh, there's wishing allright, even for Buddhists (the majority of which consider themselves "students of buddhism"). the trick or, better, the practice is to recognize wishes for what they are. the moment they become expectations, we run the risk of disappointment, ergo suffering.