Saturday, February 26, 2011

There Are Always Openings To Be Near My Own Discomfort & Desire

As part of a workshop I am doing I am spending a lot of time exploring the artistic process. I have become increasingly aware of the struggle involved in the process and my inability to manage it in some way that feels skillful or graceful.

I have also been hearing the call to work in other ways as well as "buddha images". There has been some inner nudging to work in more abstract form and so this is part of my exploration these days. Going off in new directions can be difficult ground to cover, like going off to kindergarten for the first time. Where do I hang my coat and who will play with me at recess?

One thing that has followed me around the studio, in a harassing kind of way is my judgmental mind (excuse me officer, I'd like to file an harassment complaint against my mind).
As part of my exploration I am learning to be more patient and kind as I work. I am building new mind habits, slogging my way out of the old neural cow paths. There are so many elements of this process that are like any aspect of working with the mind, doing good solid mind training.

First I have to wake up to the process and see clearly when I am heading down the well worn trail of self judgment and frustration. Once I wake up and see this, instead of just rushing headlong down that tangled path, and getting scratched and torn in the brambles, I can stop. If I don't stop, what I have learned is that a paint brush and frustration = a mucky, contorted mess. Pretty simple equation.

I have decided that my painting, my canvas is like a living being and deserves the same kind of consideration I might offer to other living beings. I need to ask it what it needs and then I need to wait until it answers. Then I proceed as best I can with kindness and care as I attempt to deliver what it needs (I'm like the milkman, excuse me painting was that chocolate milk? one quart or two?) Sometimes I get the order wrong but I don't have to get (all pissy about it, as my daughter would say). If I am careful I can go whoops, I just gave you a litre of sour milk and some cottage cheese, let me take that back, it's not lookin so good on you)

And so the process continues. I have been following my heart in choosing materials. I love little bits of words from magazines and books, vintage sewing patterns and flat, matte paint. Gesso and conte crayons are calling to me, as are lots of texture and bits of old fabric. I just explore putting them all together. And I am enjoying working in simple neutrals as I explore form. It seems if I put colour on hold I can focus better on form.

I am having this delicious time mixing licorice blacks and smokey greys and whip cream whites. I have been using text as form but also discovered I can apply words so they retain some of their quirky entertaining meaning which is a joy to me.

I don't think you can see the words on this canvas so here's a little sample of how I have been entertaining the canvas with words. Under the circle it reads "Later, I ran into reality and invited him to dinner. There are always openings to be near my own discomfort and desire, no matter where."

In the upper left framing a square the text reads: "Brace yourself, this is where you get to see we all have grace sometimes." To the side of this the text reads: "Everyone has amazing talent which is just covered up while eating ice cream. Regardless of the journey every movement has depth and wings"

And if you start in the upper left of the circle you can follow the story around: "what can you imagine on a park bench by a river. Every word has a world behind it. I catch a glimpse of make believe. Eyes are tricky. It was like seeing the hand which would hold the secret unable to be kept anymore. Walls painted with dreams and intention , life without coincidence had never seemed important to me until that moment."

So that's the bedtime story, kids, stream of consciousness painting. I'm calling it "Every picture tells a story." I'm just learning how to listen

Monday, February 21, 2011

Alchemical Cartographers of Art & Spirit

I am having a great time bathing in my own frustration ( could someone turn the hot water off?) and trying out my authentic voice in the metaphorical shower. That is to say, along with some other artists I am participating in a workshop called "Seeking Authentic Voice" offered by artist, coach and blogger, Leslie Avon Miller. We are exploring and mining some deep veins of artistic importance (hard hats are required, along with steel toed boots). In addition to my new work as a miner (no asbestos hazards here) I have dived into a new Dharma pool of brilliant sea green waters and refreshing Sangha breezes. This is a perfect combo pak, filled with richness and excitement and new things. New neural pathways are being forged and old trails through despair are growing over from disuse.

Over the past year I have moved twice, spent time on the road, done renos to the house I am living in now. It wasn't until I looked at this with new, kinder eyes that I realized why I haven't spent a lot of concentrated time in the studio. A lot of creative time has gone into re-visioning the home I am living in now, a creative process in itself. But until stopping to have a good look at this I created a lot of angst around the art making process. Art making needs space. Like any Dharma practice it needs room to breath and space to allow things to lazily and playfully percolate to the surface. So in thinking about my frustration, which I am now acknowledging as part of the process (gasp) I was drawn to the following quote: "The greatest opportunities for creative transformation are often lodged in our discontents. Art is an alchemical process that feeds on emotional energy. When we realize that a perfect equilibrium in our lives might not be the best basis for making art, then we can begin to re-vision our stress points. So rather than try to rid your life of tension, consider doing something more creative with it."

"Don't underestimate frustration and discontent. They are eternal wellsprings for artistic expression. After sustained periods of being stuck, your impatience with the situation might unloose a new phase of creation. You might boldly paint over the picture you have been fussing over for weeks and discover the basis for an original composition in your burst of emotion." I love the idea of finding opportunity in our difficulties, of reframing things (though I don't always get this right away!). It's like nothing is ever wasted (it's the ultimate in recycling, right?) we use even adversity. from "Trust the Process : An Artist's Guide to Letting Go" by Shaun Mcniff. It's a lot like any aspect of the Dharma really. We embrace everything, the ups, the downs. We become "a bigger container" as Joko Beck puts it. So riding the horse of frustration is a necessary part of the process, even if it's not much fun. Perhaps we can come to regard it as fun??

Another idea we've been exploring in the mine shaft is the role of creator/ editor in the process. In thinking about this I referred to an old friend, "The Zen of Creativity." The late John Daido Loori offers this commentary on the act of creating art: "In the creative process, as long as the energy is strong, the process continues. It may take minutes or hours. As long as you feel chi peaking and flowing, let it run its course. It's important to allow this flow and expression, without attempting to edit what is happening - without trying to name, judge, analyze, or understand it. The time for editing is later. The time for uninhibited flow of expression is now."

... "The editing process begins with reconnecting with the feeling, the resonance, that was present during the creation of the work of art. Then we slowly and deliberately remove the unnecessary elements, without disturbing the feeling of resonance. If the resonance weakens, we've gone too far."

"... Attending to chi and resonance can facilitate the process considerably, particularly if the mind is empty and you trust your intuition. ... Ultimately, all of the elements, ... muse, hara, chi, resonance, expression, editing - are really nothing but the self. It is important to trust this and to trust the process. Trust yourself. Your way of experiencing the world is unique. And what you're trying to do is give voice to this unique experience. Criticism in art is certainly valuable, but the creative process and developing your creative abilities is not the place for it. It is important, in engaging the creative process, to be able to work freely, without hindrance or judgment." These are important suggestions to work with I think, to make them your own. I find there is always a period of understanding and then adjustment as we work them into our own process.

So it is a rich and on-going exploration. I have decided I want to get lost in the "process" of creating. I want to forget about the end product. Considering outcomes is counter productive and stifling in the act of creation. As in the work of the Dharma and awareness we just want to be present to what we are doing, not constantly catapulting ourselves into the future.

I have decided that as part of the creation process I will conjure up an inner guide (I acknowledge the need for help) to offer positive direction and guidance. I need a road map through the creative wilderness. It is easy to get lost, to get off track. The automobile association towing service apparently doesn't service this area. I need an alchemical, cartographer type in my court, failing the service of a spiritual tow truck. Do you think I could advertise for her on Craigslist? I will know her when she answers my advert. When she comes for her interview she will be slightly eccentric, graceful, yet awkward, unusual, and bookish, homely, yet intensely attractive. If you were to peak into my studio you would see her there, a tall woman with dishevelled dark hair in a long blue skirt, wearing blundstone boots and a lacey shawl. She would be telling me some funny story and doing an impersonation of someone that would have me rolling on the ground. Of course I would hire her on the spot. The only fee she would charge is gingerbread cake and strong black tea sometime in the late afternoon. And as needed she would put on her dark rimmed glasses and turn her razor sharp sense of inquiry toward the canvas and ask me just the question I need to put me back to work. If you see her, tell her I'm looking for her.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Arranging Deck Chairs On The Titanic

At our weekend retreat the Saturday night Dharma talk was about happiness. Now this was pretty exciting for me because the Dharma circles I've traveled in never gave much airtime to happiness. So I was all ears, even though I was exhausted. I particularly liked the analogy that if we are looking to outside circumstances to make us happy "we are simply arranging deck chairs on the titanic". At some point it's going down. Now as Basil Faulty would say, to most Dharma practitioners this is the "bleeding obvious". But we don't always act this way. It was referred to as the "if only" syndrome. Now for me it's often, if only my health were better, if only I trusted life more. We all have our "go to" "if onlys", little fences of lists that we erect between ourselves and happiness. Mostly we hardly notice these little fences, even if we keep on bumping into them and coming back bruised and torn every time.

The Dharma talk began with something like, "the point of practice is happiness". The happiness referenced here is not the woo hoo, manic let's party, happiness or the "lets put on our rose coloured glasses and pretend everything's perfect" kind of happiness. It is a quieter state, perhaps contentment, equanimity describe it best. Happiness can be such a tricky word. And how do we approach this happiness? My recollections of the talk are most likely incomplete but it seems worth giving it a go.

Being present, being with what is, is an integral part of this happiness. We're not arguing with what is, we are not conflicted, we are just here for it. This also implies a state of relaxation, a state of relaxing into the present moment, relaxing into our bodies. When we're relaxed every cell in our body can breath a little sigh of relief. How much more complete can it be than every cell in our body? We trust in what unfolds.

Generosity towards ourselves and others is an important aspect of happiness. Generosity is a three fold gift. We feel good when we contemplate a generous act, when we actually do it, and then afterwards when we recall it. Three for the price of one, happiness is such a bargain, oi!

Sila or morality was noted as an aspect of happiness. When we behave with blamelessness we have no regrets and our actions don't come back to haunt us as in "the ghost of Christmas past" kinds of ways.

So that's the bedtime story for tonight, kids! Be happy! Be happy now!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Do You Have A First Aid Kit?

As part of a creativity class I am assembling a first aid kit that I can open when I get thrown off centre and land somewhere in the street below, stunned and wondering what the heck I am doing and why I bother, and all those other hair pulling questions we ask ourselves in moments of frustration. I am filling this funky vintage first aid box with all kinds of elixirs and remedies, wake up calls and bread crumbs to follow through the forest of my sometimes dark and tangled mind, things to remind me of my essential intention when I create. Things that remind me what I am doing here and why? Things to lift the spirit and pull me forward when my inclination might be to melt into a puddle on the floor.

Of course the kit contains a Buddha and a lovely little Quan Yin statue and a tiny bridge that reminds me to cross back over into the land of inspiration and courage. There is a tiny stone to remind me of strength and groundedness. And a card I have kept for many years that says: "your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart give yourself to it." It's about living whole heartedly. I can't be reminded of this often enough. And of course the wonderful Mary Oliver line: "What is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" That one always wakes me up from my somnambulant state.

And there is a Jack Kornfield quote from his book, "A Wise Heart": ""Thomas Merton once advised a young activist, "Do not depend on the hope of results .... you may have to face the fact that your work may be apparently worthless and even achieve no results at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself." By aligning our dedication with our highest intention, we chart the course of our whole being. Then no matter how hard the voyage and how big the setbacks, we know where we are headed."

This quote reminds me that it's all about process and intention, not the end result. When I get too focused on what things are looking like and judging and editing and being critical, there's no quicker way to close down the whole of Santa's workshop. I need lots of reminders to "just do" and not look over my own shoulder like a some sort of circus contortionist. There is a time and a place for the editor but it isn't during the creation period.

And I will go off in search of other quotes that remind me to carry on. Here's another Jack Kornfield one that will likely go in with the gauze and tweezers: "Setting an long term intention is like setting the compass of our heart. No matter how rough the storms, how difficult the terrain, even if we have to backtrack around obstacles, our direction is clear... It is good to question our own dedication, even if it makes us uncomfortable. To what have we dedicated our life? How deeply do we carry this dedication? Is it time to rededicate our lives?"

And I think I will put my Pipi Longstockings book in there too to remind me to have fun and be outrageous and adventurous and love my life. Perhaps when I stand at my easel I will channel Pipi. So let me treat you to just a little delicious tidbit of Pipi in an artistic mood: "Next she had gone into the parlour and painted a large picture on the wallpaper. The picture represented a fat lady in a red dress and a black hat. In one hand she held a yellow flower and in the other a dead rat. Pipi thought it a very beautiful picture; it dressed up the whole room."

And now I am starting to wonder, what's in your first aid kit?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Are You A Ping Pong Ball or a Plate?

I hope you're sitting down because I almost have a new piece of art to post. I guess that means you only have to be half way sitting down because it's a "not quite done piece". But that half way sitting down could be really awkward and uncomfortable so maybe we should just forget that part of the equation. Collage and painted background of one of our favourite guys in some of my habitual colours, but also colours inspired by him!

Looks like Wednesday night posts will stand on the shoulder's of the evening's Dharma talk. I am always inspired by a good Dharma talk and Heather Martin delivers the apres sit wisdom with ease and spontaneity. How do we meet the ever changing experiences of life? How do we work with difficult emotions? Are we easily thrown off centre when things don't go the way we expected or the way we "want" them to go? Do we react to circumstances in habitual ways, in the blink of an eye, ways that may be unhelpful and that we sometimes live to regret? Do we watch the dominoes of karma tumbling down in familiar and painful patterns?

The analogy tossed out was that of a ping pong ball. Do you get easily blown off course when the life gives you a little tap (or a big tap)? When we are constantly at the beck and call of outer circumstance, life can feel exhausting and chaotic. Things are always changing (anicca), so can we meet those changes with a solid inner stance? Can we meet life with some modicum of equanimity?

How do we do this? Heather suggested we might practice being "undisturbable". How does this feel, to be undisturbable? A plate is the image she used to illustrate this state. Unlike the ping pong ball easily bounced about by the winds of change, the plate has a wide open base and is more difficult to throw off balance. It has an openness. For us this means if we are going to make like plates, (no running away like the dish with the spoon, eek I'm quoting nursery rhymes now!) we open up to what is. We accept circumstances and people and work from there. This acceptance helps us enter a state or perhaps is simultaneous with the state of equanimity.

And of course our meditation practice over the years helps us transform ourselves from ping pong balls into plates or perhaps we gradually get to spend more time, making like plates and less time pinging around. Our intention to be "undisturbable" becomes an important aspect of this transformation, and our willingness to chip away at habitual behaviour, our knee jerk reactions to life and all it brings to our doorsteps, is part of the firing process.

It is helpful for us to look at those times when we say "oh, no", to examine them. They are opportunities for us to look at what we are rejecting in this very moment, what we wish were different. "Oh, no" is like a little flashing light telling us, poof, we're about to become a ping pong ball.

So go forth my friends, and make yourselves into the most beautiful plate you can imagine. And something marvelous will happen. You will fill up with the treasures of life because a plate has room to hold it all.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Welcome Your "Guests"

I am hoping you all have bad memories and think you haven't seen this little collage before! Another nice Dharma talk by Heather Martin at the Gate House last night. The part that resonated deeply for me had to do with having unconditional friendliness toward what she called "the defilements". I am more familiar with them as the 5 hindrances (remember Buddhism is the religion of lists, not to be confused with making a religion of lists). And I am definitely familiar with the unsuccessful and wasted effort involved in trying to push them away. And the delusion in thinking that experiences these arisings makes me somehow "faulty" or a bad practitioner.

We are all familiar with these hindrances:
desire (which has a range, including rejecting)
anger or ill will
sloth & torpor
agitation, restlessness, worry

She reminded us to look deeply inside when these things arise, get familiar with them. Our usual inclination is to look at the object of the feelings. We focus on the person who made us angry, the source of our worry. She suggested that we might view them all as visitors, not laden with the heavy self ownership we can imbue them with. And she reminded us of the lovely Rumi poem called "The Guest House" that I will leave you with. Now go forth and attend with loving kindness to your guests!

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

~ Rumi ~

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Power of Leaning Into It

We had a little Buddhist stand up routine over at 108 Zenbooks yesterday where Genju was trying to give away her suffering and I offered to adopt it from SPCS (society for prevention of cruelty to suffering). Now this got her thinking about how she should be nicer to her suffering.

And I'm going to play off that riff. In fact it must have been out there in the ether because I woke up thinking about a couple of morsels of suffering I've been chewing on lately. Not a good morning taste to wake up to! Same old boring theme, same old suffering. You think I'd learn? You think I'd want to take a vacation from my monotonous subdivision of gripes.

And then as I was trying to plot my escape from arch enemy, suffering, the words came to me, "lean into it". A teaching I have heard more than once, but somethings take a long time to leach down into the ol' cranium. And I could see that all my imaginings of how I could improve things for myself were simply versions of "pushing my suffering away", all my worrying about things were simply not accepting what is.

That doesn't mean taking no action. No lying on the floor and shouting uncle (aunty would never approve). Think of leaning into something, there is action and initiative and strength required. And when consider a situation deeply, we find the next small step that needs to be taken (or not taken).

So as I let the feeling of "leaning into my suffering" sink in I felt empowered and heartened somehow. Strange? Maybe, but that was the experience. I gave up the mind loop of fear and got on with my day. My mind, my body both thanked me for it. I could see how the experience of pushing away the suffering was an energy sink hole. It created lethargy and inaction and a chaotic mind dashing about looking for the exit. And well, sometimes you've got to suffer and thrash a bunch, before you remember to lean into it. So sharpen up your shoulder, put on a sturdy coat and lean into it. It comes with my highest recommendation. Martial arts of the spirit.