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!


  1. I so enjoy the way you write...your sense of humor and general open writing about your work and practice. Thank you for being willing to share your ongoing art making life in this pleasure for sure.

  2. "The art of living a sane life...trusting our basic nature...our natural creativity...the essence of everything." Now that speaks volumes to me and I love how you shared this process, this "struggle", if you will, of being true to that Essence and letting IT express, letting IT flow - even as you danced with Mara...

    After watching the video I got the sense that's it's about getting lost in the creativity, stepping out of "self" into a kind of creative playfulness that allows this natural essence to emerge, to express. I loved watching him work - so visceral, so sensual, getting *into* it - just moving *with* the color... Seeing him work touched me deeply. I now want to paint! I need to find a way to do this!

    I relate to wanting to be confirmed, or affirmed for what "I" create. I sometimes feel this in the blog writing - hoping I write something that will touch or speak to others. Funny creatures we are :)

    Another move?! You have found another place?!

  3. :-) I see Christine caught that "move." May to flow seamlessly!

    This has to be my favourite post to date. So rich with the process of creativity yet with enough descriptors that I can hang a concept or two up on my mindwall, and then sit back to relish them with my cup of chai.

    Your talent, wisdom, and generosity are inspirational.

  4. carole, i have linked to this post from my blog... i so appreciate your taking the time to express your thoughts/feelings so honestly and clearly. xo

  5. Hello and thanks as always for the kind words Blue Sky Dreaming! So nice to have your company here

    MeANderi - Yes, buy paint!! He is so inspiring, isn't he and as he points out this is just an active part of our practice. And that is careful reading, yes we have bought a place and will move at the end of Sept. Blog material I suspect!

    Genju - I suspect you will find much of interest in DKR's posts and videos. Glad you enjoyed the post!

    Lynne - Thanks for the shout out. As always I love your amazingly touching and authentically personal paint kids! I think you are doing what DKR is talking about.

  6. welcome to the world of artists and creating- the frustrations, the self-doubting, the experimenting, the judging, the back to drawing table-- all part of the ongoing journey.

  7. "I realized the deep sense of attachment I had to creating something I liked, something others would like (as imagined through my own eyes)"...and so it is with everything we do...including judging and editing our thoughts and feelings...and so, I am thinking that this "destruction" is actually about compassion...a way of saying to our selves "relax, let go, surrender to the mystery, trust, trust, trust...YOU don't have to be in control or make it right or perfect...just do and be...enter and engage in the fullness of each moment...that is enough. That is plenty."

  8. I really enjoyed this fun ,thought provoking post. One of my art instructors would watch us work and when she saw an area in our painting that we protected she would take our brush and mess it up. She said it was too precious to us and inhibited our painting process. I was a hard lesson to learn and one that I still struggle with.

  9. I've missed stopping by the last few weeks and have just immersed myself in all the posts that I had are a delightful writer. I always find myself smiling and nodding.
    I learned the excruciating lesson of not falling in love with the work for my own sake from the very beginning.

    Practice: draw and/or paint all day today and then start the woodstove fire with the work the next morning. Day after day fro sevral years.
    Way before I had the awareness of any formal dharma teaching, and nonattachment, and dang ol' impermanence, I intuitively realized it would be detrimental to get attached to what I thought was 'a painting' before I learned to ***let go of what I thought was a painting***.


    PS...even though I have a new blog address I still have to comment out of the old address...learning curve...strangest thing.