Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Riding An Unruly Horse

Here's a picture of the future studio. At this point in time it seems far into the future. I have been playing host to fatigue from cleaning and packing and riding the emotional horse of doubt and angst as we get ready to move tomorrow. I am holding on for the ride, watching the changing terrain as I fly over each boulder and tree root of my imaginings. Sometimes I am sliding down one side or the other of this unruly horse. I have lost my hat and decorum long ago. I am definitely getting a work out. And it is the perfect opportunity to experience impermanence at the gut level. A little phrase has stuck in my head from a blog I came across yesterday called Appropriate Response. "This is what it feels like to be human." So I have been feeling this raw, humanness or as Ezra Bayda calls it "the uncomfortable quiver of being".

It is so interesting to watch the machinations of the mind, throwing up all kinds of worries and fears, expectations not met, schedules not kept. And it reminds me that when we tie our hopes and dreams to external things we are bound for disappointment. I need to learn this over and over. These are the things I am working with as I prepare for the moving truck to arrive tomorrow. The mind loves to weave a big story that this is the culmination of a year's adventure of moving and traveling and relocating. It likes to make a big, scary 3D movie. It is a master at making "what is" into more than that.

I watch my inclination to want to retreat, maybe roll up into a little pill bug on the couch, to hide from all this. Overwhelm threatens to take the upper hand and then I remember to just do the next thing that needs to be done. Wrap that glass, clean the stove burners. And so the day unfolds.

I realize I will miss this beautiful landing spot on the island with its amazing ocean and island views, its bountiful garden just outside the door. It has been a good friend to us. I need to remember to feel gratitude, instead of just a sense of loss. The two can coexist in the same breath.

And our new home is ready and waiting for us. A Tibetan teacher we know came and performed a purification ceremony on Saturday. The sun came out from behind the clouds and graced us with unseasonably warm temperatures. He chanted from a Tibetan text, walk each room and the perimeter of the house with incense and finally we hung some prayer flags that had come from Tibet and had been blessed at the Green Tara Sand Mandala Ceremony held on the island in July. Yesterday friends came from the big island and helped us move some things and walk our new property with us.

Last night there was a torrential downpour, complete with power outage. Today the sky was blue, the sun warm and our parting sunset over the ocean and hills magnificent. Such is life as a human.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Oh No What Have I Done?

The "self" is an interesting creature to watch. It can provide more entertainment and drama than any movie you might rent. Two days ago I got to watch a curious drama of the self unfold, an oscar worthy drama to be sure. Two months ago we bought a new home but because the owners needed time to collect and arrange 18 years of belongings, the possession date was set 2 months into the future. We were excited and were anxiously awaiting the day when we could roll up our sleeves, shine the place up and make it our own. Finally that day arrived.

We had known that the house needed some TLC and that the aging owners who had health issues were finding the property a challenge to maintain. Yet when we walked into the house for our first viewing of it as our own, we were overwhelmed by doubt and buyer's remorse. "Oh no, what have we done?" Both my partner and I were afraid to say it out loud but it was evident from our wander through that we were not possessed by eager enthusiasm.

Instead we were visited by a huge helping of doubt. Things seemed darker, dirtier, the scale of what was required seemed larger. Could we be happy here? Had we grasped after getting settled and bought this house and property by mistake? Should we have waited? Maybe something better would have come up. And on and on and on. You're getting the picture. The sound track to this little movie is at the dark and foreboding stage.

So there it was "doubt" in full regalia, one of the five hindrances in Buddhist thought. And we got to watch it's pageant of suffering. Now as well as experiencing the doubt, we could see the little drama unfolding (kind of like watching a documentary) so we weren't fully hooked. Suffering yes, but also understanding the source of suffering. And we could see the other sources of suffering. A heavy dose of expectation. Yes we expected the place would need paint, but we expected everything else would look just perfect.

Instead we noticed that there was a view of the neighbour's house that we'd forgotten, his roosters were noisy. We could hear cars from the gravel road below. The scope of cleaning seemed overwhelming. Each expectation spawned a new one. It was like a little line of domino expectations, setting each other off. Dissatisfaction was the word of the day.

I wavered between trying to put a bright face on it and just being with that sense of doubt and dissatisfaction. We were drinking from that well of common human experience where we want to tie our happiness to external things, when we want life to please us, when we want things to go our way in every detail. I could taste the interesting souffle of doubt, expectation seasoned with a pinch of greater knowing.

By next morning everything had changed. Overwhelm had left the building. We got out our cleaning supplies and loaded up a few boxes and drove to the new house. This time it shone with the potential we had seen in it when we decided to buy it. The house hadn't changed. We had. Our self centred worry and doubt had lifted and we embraced the mop and bucket with renewed enthusiasm. Could I have found a drama at the video store that would have engaged me more, tugged at my heart strings, and offered me more teaching? I don't think so. And what's up on the movie marquee of your life today? Comedy, tragedy, drama?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Curious Attention, No Shake & Bake Answers

"When an object appears familiar, it's a certainty that I'm merely seeing my ideas of the object rather than the object itself. Furthermore, the idea I form of an object is invariably a "rounding off" of the object to accommodate a categorical generalization, whereas the object itself is always sharp, specific to this exact moment, and doesn't repeat itself. Categorical generalizations render actual objects, persons, and events into types of objects, persons, and events. There are in reality no such types, but only the discreet things themselves."
Lin Jensen from "Together Under One Roof"

I'm reading Jensen's lovely little book of reminiscences of a life viewed through the lens of the Dharma and when I stumbled upon the above paragraph I paused. It struck me how I live most of my life in this way, viewing the world through the slightly foggy lens of my ideas. It is easy and comfortable and habitual and quite human. True wonder happens when we really pause and just see something, someone, without our cherished opinions and our "knowing", delegating our mind to its appropriate role of good servant as opposed to megalomanic master.

Even, or perhaps especially in drawing or painting "the knowing", the idea gets in the way of seeing. I was talking with someone about this just the other day. If I think I know what a head looks like I fill in where I think certain lines and shapes should be. I get ahead of myself (ridiculous, pitiful pun intended). When I go back and look with care or trick the mind by looking at the negative space or holding a photo upside down, I often see how wrong "my ideas" about how a head looks are. Yet the mind is quick to jump straight to the idea. It takes care and vigilance and discipline and patience to just see.

Jensen goes on to observe: "When I give this sort of curious attention a try, I'm surprised at how unfamiliar the neighbourhood is. This fresh strangeness is the gift of attention." And that's just it isn't it? Habitual thoughts and ways of seeing things are so predictable and familiar. I have run over them with my mind enough times to put them out of their misery but still they keep resurrecting themselves in the same boring form each time. But to really see each thing brings a freshness to life. Walking down a trail today I noticed an Arbutus leaf curled upward, a tiny leaf cup, filled with water, patterned with shining shades of green and yellow and orange. Not just a leaf, not a label, not a dry, stale known thing, a leaf like no other. But mostly the mind runs over one thing ( oh yes, pretty fall leaves, lovely damp trail), and on to the next, looking for excitement, drama or danger, something more worthy of its attention, always moving like a hungry monkey.

Jensen's observations about "truly seeing" people reminds me of my Zen teacher's constant reminder to students that there are no generalizations that can be applied to life's difficult situations. Our questions at Dharma talks were always on the prowl for generalization that would make our lives easier. We wanted simple formulas and little recipes that we could apply in our semi-awakened or fully somnambulant state but our wise teacher always reminded us that each situation needed to be carefully considered on it's own merit. A similar situation with different people or on different days might require a totally different response, no canned, pre packaged, shake and bake answers. And if we are paying attention and responding from that immediate place we find an appropriate response.

And she was clear that we needed to look carefully at the details of any interaction. When I would describe a difficult situation with my mother she would ask questions, "did she say thank-you." And I'd say something like, "I don't remember, but she was so negative." After a few of these exchanges, I'd get the picture that I hadn't really been paying attention. I'd been working on the premise that my mother was always negative. I was working with "my idea of my mother". And so trouble was perpetuated as I skated along on the slippery surface of my ideas.

So Jensen extends the invitation to us to abandon our ideas of how things are and wander out into the fields of bare attention to directly experience our world. I am setting the hay bale table out in the field. Will you join me? I promise there will be no shake & bake.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Art For Tibet On-line Auction

Here's a link to the Art Auction by Student's For A Free Tibet. Volunteers have been working really hard to put this all together. "What The Buddha Sewed 2", shown here is part of the online auction. Check out this 11x14" cradled panel piece that I donated and all the other wonderful art. Here's an opportunity to buy some art to kick off the fall nesting season. Beautify that hibernation cave! And if you feel so inclined spread the word about this fundraiser and support the Tibetan cause.

If the plight of Tibet doesn't already tug at your heart strings, check out the movie "What Remains of Us" made by a young Canadian woman of Tibetan parents who smuggled a video of the Dalai Lama into Tibet and showed it to Tibetans who had never seen or heard the Dalai Lama's voice before. She did this at great personal risk and the movie is guaranteed to make you weep.

In Buddhist practice it is always said that there is a compassionate aspect of suffering. I have heard it said on a number of occasions that the "compassionate" aspect of the Tibetan situation is that the world has come to know and love the Dalai Lama and all the compassion, wisdom and sanity he brings to this crazy world. Let us offer what we can in return.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Painting Over Attachment: The Art of Sanity

For some time, a long time actually, I have been conscious of duking it out with some strange studio demons. It's hard to paint when you're wearing boxing gloves and this has become a serious issue for me. Perhaps roller derby collage would be a more practical option. Toss in a little Dharma, stir vigourously and presto we've got some pretty weird reality TV. But I digress in the effort to protect my dirty, little secret. Mara, that rude little apparition, has been shovelling heaps of frustration onto the canvas for months. I create, I judge, I don't like. I avoid. I don't know what to do. I add another layer of frustration. And so on and so on. Ah, a Sistine Chapel of Samsara. And yet I sense this is where I need to go, that there is something authentic and intensely me in the process. I am a slow learner. And yet there is hope. There is a special class for people like me in the basement of every spiritual high school, next to the lunchroom.

And then recently, as I prepare for another move, I unearthed an older copy (winter 2009) of Tricycle mag and what should pop off the cover but an article by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche called "The Art of Awareness" or "art as a transformative practice". I don't know how I missed this article first time around. I must have been standing on my pointy little head in November or maybe it was all that packing and moving! Alice and I fell into a packing box and missed the tea party.

At any rate I have been reading this piece over and over and hoping it will sink into my bones, mineralize my artist's backbone. It meshes with the workshop I took with Nick Bantock who spent the weekend trying to pull us deeper into our art. I emerged frustrated and snarled in a lot of self doubt but recognizing some essential truth, treading water, coughing and sputtering. And then this morning Tricycle's Daily Dharma offered up another piece by Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.

As I read this one I realized the deep sense of attachment I had to creating something I liked, something others would like (as imagined through my own eyes), something sellable, something that did not ruin a canvas. Attachment, attachment, attachment, the penny was dropping with a pronounced thud. Of course I have felt tied up in knots, when I spend so much time looking over my own shoulder, lurching between creator and judge in the twitch of a crossed eye. Recipe for a body and mind pretzel fest! Did I mention my sore back?

I read about DKR's fearlessness as embodied in his art teacher's (Matthieu Ricard's mother, Yahne Le Toumelin!) instruction: "She would say, “When you get attached to anything that emerges on the canvas, destroy it!” I would watch her create something beautiful and then paint over it or scrape off the paint. “Destroy, destroy, destroy.” This is not to say that beauty or attachment to beauty is a problem. Destroying them is not an aggressive act, an annihilation of self or a rejection of experience. It enhances creativity. It is a natural wearing away of attachment and becomes a part of the creative process itself—a way to engage a bigger mind. The more I do this, the greater the satisfaction. I am not fixated on creating something “good” or “pleasing.” My interest or focus is on the process of creating and connecting to my natural creativity. The main discipline is to let go." Yes, yes, yes, I have been looking for this roadmap.

Now I know this may seem odd, even shocking to artists out there who are not Dharma practitioners. "What is the point of this, destroying something beautiful that you have created?" And of course this is not necessary. No one needs to do this, if they don't feel drawn to. But for me there is a call to produce something that comes from past my attachment (maybe you go there already, through some natural process of your own, this is quite possible) For me DKR's following comment is what beckons: " Nevertheless, the artist continuously has to step out of the way and not obstruct the nature of mind that is in the work as it is being produced..... I can remove myself from the work and allow it to have its own life.... There is a deep feeling of satisfaction. The satisfaction comes in knowing that the evolution of the painting on the outside reflects how resolved I feel on the inside through the discipline of relinquishing all attachment. The moment I stop painting is when the outside and the inside conicide in this way. That is when the painting itself reflects a natural, uncontrived awareness."

And the one final aspect of DKR's articles that calls to me is about trust. I am working with attachment and trust these days in my work, wrestling and writhing and struggling around the studio floor. Some days I am down for the count with Mara flashing me the victory sign. It is not a pretty sight and yet it seems to be part of the process for me. I think I am coming to the point with DKR's help where I can just go in work (some days) and be okay with what happens (ah acceptance).

But back to trust, which is a deep and penetrating issue for me, one that is taking a long time to get through my thick, rhinoceros skin. Here's what he has to say about trust in the artistic and life process: "When we talk about creating art—or more importantly, the art of living a sane life—it means trusting our basic nature and its natural creativity. Natural creativity is something very large, the essence of everything. As artists we make such a big deal about creating something “good,” something “pleasing.” We want everyone to love our creations in order to confirm our existence. Our insecurities, hopes, and fears haunt us. Either we feel we lack the ability to create or we use art as a means to solidify ourselves: “Look here, my art is in the Guggenheim!” “Look at my résumé, I danced with the Russian Ballet!” Don’t let your insecurities rob you of your trust! Just remember, this natural energy created the entire universe—a humbling thought that puts our own artistic creations in perspective! Think: “The universe is here! Where did it come from?” Then have some trust and let this natural energy express itself."

You can watch him create a painting here and this will give you a little feeling for how the process works. After that I think it is just going in there and working away until it finally sinks into our blood and bones and the ah ha moment arrives. Happy creating!