Friday, August 14, 2009

Strong Back, Soft Heart

Here's a second study of the "rainbow buddha". I did an earlier one that sold and then because I am always exploring the face of the Buddha and I love these colours I did another one, using more shading and detailing, especially around the eyes. George Littlechild is a painter I love and in a strange way I feel a connection through my colourful Buddhas . This Buddha has a very "female" look as do a number of my Buddha's. Maybe it's time do do a Tara as one friend keeps urging me or a Quan Yin as another suggests.

Yesterday as I sat in meditation I heard some words that I remember hearing 20 years ago at the Shambhala Centre I attended then. I believe they are attributed to Chogyam Trungpa: "Have a strong back and a soft heart" I may be off in the exact words and the trusty, know-it-all "google" couldn't find them for me. But they seem important to me in my practice lately.

If all we have is a soft heart (which is kind of my inclination) we tend to be weighted down by the troubles of the world, our own and that of others. The sadness and the suffering pile up and we feel overwhelmed. I remember when I first went to the Dharma talks of my teacher it seemed all I could see was the suffering around me. I felt like an open wound, oozing and raw. But a soft heart is an important part of the practice, to be open to the suffering and pain of others (and ourselves) to be willing to walk into it, to be with it, not pushing it away and saying everything is copacetic.

And yet this is not the whole picture (as I sensed in my overwhelmed state) As a senior teacher at the Shambhala Centre suggested, yes we need to have a soft heart, to let the world in, to let it touch us but we need to have a strong back to bear it all. We need to find a way to hold that suffering and not collapse or push it away. It is about this balance, this blend of soft and strong, and I like that it is described with the body. I see this picture of me with my soft heart being pulled forward and rolling up into a tiny ball. That's too much soft heart. And if you only have a strong back, perhaps your body is pulled so straight up, so tightly, that things simply bounce off your heart and can't enter there?

And for those of us with soft hearts, how do we develop the strong back? I am not sure about that? I am working on it. Our training helps us develop wisdom and clarity that allows us to see the truth of situations. To me that means that it is not always the "soft, kind, fuzzy" action that is helpful in a particular instance. As in the story I told of my friend repeating her problem over and over I have come to realize it is not helpful for either of us to let this go on. I need to have a strong back and in as kind and skillful way as possible not indulge delusion.

I need to have the strength to do the hard thing. I need to trust that the universe is unfolding as it should. If something seems horrific to me I can remember as my friend the monk says, "that something greater is working itself out" that is beyond my understanding. It doesn't mean I give up action and caring, it means using my strong back allows me to lift and hold a weight that would otherwise oppress my soft heart and render me "unhelpful" to myself and others.

And my wish for you is, may you go out into the world with your strong back and your soft heart and embrace what the world has to offer you.


  1. Yes! A Kwan Seum Bosal / Guan Yin / Kannon painted by you would be wonderful! I look forward to seeing that.

    Oh, and lovely post too! Thank you!

  2. Spotted your ad and saw your art in the Fall 2009 issue of Buddhadharma (p.62, no credit given). Congratulations!

  3. Lovely art, lovely post! Thank you!

  4. I am curious, when you create your art, do you feel more in a meditative state?

    Love the saying, strong back, soft heart.

  5. I think it is time for a Quan Yin, Marcus, who I am more familiar with than Tara. And thanks for the feedback, Peter. I just received my copy of the Buddhadharma ad today (yikes it's big!) and have yet to see the art. Sometimes credits are small and down the spine of the mag.

    Thanks to all for dropping by and your lovely comments.

    Ah the process of creating, Kyle. Sometimes I am just naturally more present and have a sense of confidence (perhaps its faith) that things will work out and then it is like a state of flow, a meditative state. Just the canvas and the paint and the movement, it all seems to work. Sometimes then I even have that sense that it wasn't "me" that painted the piece when I look back after.

    And then there are times when it's frustrating and nothing seems to go right. I put on the paint and wipe it off, I paint over things. But because I have a slightly stubborn streak I keep going. Something in me hates to give up or sometimes I say I can't bear to waste the canvas. And sometimes I move through the frustration and come out the other side and produce something that I love, something the surprises me. Sometimes, weirdly the things I like the best come from this process (Blossom Buddha is one of these). When I work like that there is nothing meditative about my state! But it is another part of the process. It's like light and dark. They both exist for me. Maybe there are people who always produce from that meditative flow state, it's an interesting question. It's a bit like emotion in a way. We don't have so much control over how we feel, but we have some control over how we react to it. And it's about not preferring the meditative, flow like state to the "steeped in frustration" state.

    And sometimes you just have to know when to give it up and go for a walk! That can be the hardest thing. Thanks for offering me the opportunity to explore that a little more!

  6. Beautiful, beautiful art! I spent some time at a Shambala Center in Boston 15 years ago when one of my clinical supervisors directed me there after I asked him how, as a clinican, he carried everyone's pain. Now, as a therapist I realize we all need the balance between a soft heart and a strong back and it is a wonderful guiding principle..thanks for sparking some wonderful memories for me.