Thursday, August 22, 2013

Preparing The Inner Canvas

8"x8" mixed media on panel (at ArtCraft)

I have been struggling a lot with my art process lately.  It's my koan. I feel like a living example of Ira Glass' quote.

But truly I've been doing this for a long time in one form or another.  Just somehow with some of the reflection on  my mental habits and the energy of my sitting practice, it's become more clear.  Sometimes that makes it more painful.  (Koan # 109 Is shit shittier if you see it more clearly??) But in some ways it feels like something that is becoming larger until it explodes and turns to dust (and or debris) and disappears. Am I just trying to put a good spin on it, all dressed up like Pollyanna with nowhere to go?  Or am I responding to the inherent emptiness in all our thrashings?

Some days the experience of frustration is so intense that I'm thinking, "why am I doing this? I am terrible at it. Why don't I just give up?"  And then I see Mara's shadow and I catch on.  Yes I could throw out all the paint brushes (I had a friend who threw his golf clubs into a lake) but where would I be then. I am chasing something and some days it feels like it's just around the corner.  And some days it's on another planet.
11"x14" mixed media on panel

The judgmental mind causes a lot of grief when we don't see it for what it is.  It's true that critical reasoning can offer helpful information but when thoughts kickstart the destructive emotions into gear and pedal out a long line of unhelpful thoughts and feelings, critical thought is a bitch.

I looked at some lovely photos from a family friend this morning that oozed beauty and serenity.  And as I sat I was reminded of a comment a monk made to me when I asked him about my frustration with my painting process. He said something to the effect that "if you want to paint peace, you need to be peace." And while that makes a lot of sense to me I often end up on the short end of the peace stick.
Visitor at our back door (outside!)

As I sat with all this I was infused with a lovely feeling of tenderness and I thought that's what I want to come out on to the canvas.  I could see in my minds eye how that tenderness would look on the easel.

And so it is the unwinding of this habitual way of being in the world that is our real work, not the painting, not the writing, not whatever it is that we do.  When we can in fact "be" what it is we wish to share with the world, then it will come through us.  Until then we're just preparing the canvas.  And that's good honest work too.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Shrieking Gibbering Madhouse On Wheels

11"x14" mixed media on panel Your Heart From Space

On Sunday I had the great pleasure of doing a one day retreat with Buddhist teacher Howie Cohn from San Francisco (which he jokingly called Bagdhdad North, as he described doing walking meditation on Market St.).  We spent the day exploring "awareness". We sat. We walked.  And we noticed how we went about this. We noticed the stories we tell ourselves about what we do. "I'm bored. I'm tired. I can't do this.  My neck hurts.  Am I doing this right? Yada yada yada. We all have our own little 100 act plays that we never tire of running.

Sometimes if you look hard enough you get the feeling that you're entirely made up of stories, with some rather convincing footnotes. Mostly we don't notice our stories because they are so insidious but if we open to them we can notice how they colour our day and our lives.  Is that grey or hints of blue I see on your horizon?  Our stories can energize and encourage us or suck the life out of us before we even get out of bed.  They can make us sick, they can trap us in inertia. So it's interesting to just become aware of that hidden ticker tape that runs through our heads.

After lunch I was tired and so my concentration waned. Instead of just noticing what it was like (ah, this is what it's like to be tired, that would be awareness) I threw down a little story. "I didn't sleep very well last night. I'm so tired. I'm not getting anything out of this now. It's hot in here. My meditation was so clear and bright this morning. This afternoon is a waste." And when I went out to walk I went for a rehash  until I realized, "you know you have a choice.  You can carry on down the rabbit hole, Alice or you could stop right here and rouse some energy,"which I did.  I also realized this was not a foreign  movie in my world.  I often travel with my own personal rabbit hole, regardless of the situation.  In practicing awareness, not only do we get to breath and walk and notice how blue the sky is, but we get to see our habitual cloud patterns and land forms. Pema Chodron calls them propensities. And Howie reminded us, that this is the first step in the direction of freedom; seeing what we get up to.  Mostly we just get up to it, period, the end.  And mostly we don't like to look, because, well, because it's not all that pretty.

 Howie tossed out this quote to remind us about what goes on in the story mill of our minds: “Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The only real difference is that you have confronted the situation they have not."― Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

8"x10" oil & cold wax "Quarry Beach"

He reminded us that  how we see things is not necessarily how they are.  So little of what we experience is sensed directly.  Our perception is filtered through the tea strainer of memory and ideas. "Your mother is not the same as your ideas about your mother."  Does that seem obvious?  Maybe, but we don't often act as if this is true. It reminds me of how I bumble about in my communications with others, how I take my point of view for granted and how this can make me impatient and insensitive.

And at the end of the day when we all agreed on the value of awareness like it was some giant and tasty apple pie, someone asked "why is it so hard to practice then?" Howie offered suggestions that might be helpful including the importance of a like minded community of practitioners which he emphasized with this little tidbit:  "When you see geese flying along in “V” formation, you might consider what science has discovered as to why they fly that way. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following. By flying in “V” formation, the whole flock adds at least 71 percent greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. 

When a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to go it alone — and quickly gets back into formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front. .

When the head goose gets tired, it rotates back in the wing and another goose flies point. Geese honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed.

When a goose gets sick or is wounded by gunshot, and falls out of formation, two other geese fall out with that goose and follow it down to lend help and protection. They stay with the fallen goose until it is able to fly or until it dies, and only then do they launch out on their own, or with another formation to catch up with their group.

Can you hear me honking at you?  Whatever you answered, you're right.