Saturday, December 31, 2011

Letting Go Of The Old, Leaning Into The New

A new ritual added itself to my New Year's Eve this year.  The fine, crisp afternoon was perfect for the bonfire I'd been conjuring in my mind.  I cut up some  scraps of paper and took a couple of pens down to the pond where I've been piling branches.  After we'd built up a lovely little chimney of flame and sipped on something mulled we turned our minds to what we'd like to let go of on this last day of the year.  What habit, what attribute, what way of holding ourselves against life could we live happily without in 2012?

In the not too distant past I might have prepared a phone book sized list of things I needed to shed.   But  these days my "Buddha's brain" is a slightly kinder place.  I have given up my status as a self improvement project.

As I warmed by the fire and admired the hazy orb of moon, my mind poked around in the dark basement of memory for the give-aways .  Into the fire with fear, ditto for my lack of faith in myself on a number of fronts.  Into the fire with hesitancy, doubt, with timidity and a final flourish of firey sparks for what holds me back.

Fire, that primeval Mister Clean, so fittingly medieval on the last day of the year.  No dancing, no char rubbed on the face, simply a little tossing of bits of paper to remind us of one ending and one beginning and our intentions for both.  Let go of the old, lean into the new.  Burn down the old shack of musty habits.

I always spend some of New Year's eve contemplating the past year and thinking about the new year.  Refections, intentions, whatever you want to call them, they are worthy of a visit every now and then , worthy of the flashlight of awareness.   You can get really organized and pull your thoughts together as they do over at A Liberated Life or The Uncaged Life.   But if you're like me, you might be a bit more free form, just wandering back over the path that carried you through the year and then letting your heart pull you toward where you belong in the new year.

My intentions are crowding around the parts of my life that have to do with my art, health and spiritual practice. They are keeping company with words like openness, bravery, faith, passion and gusto.  That seems like a hopeful first course.

I wish you the best of what 2012 has to offer, filled with the joy of simple pleasures and an appetite for this precious life.   May you savour every bite, the sweet and the savoury, the slightly bitter and even the tough bits.  It is my great pleasure to travel this leg of the journey with you.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Flavour of These Days

There is  something indulgent about the holiday season, all the tastes and smells and sights that give pleasure.  I am good with this season of celebration as long as it sidesteps the madness of the consumer driven holiday.  I don't want to know about angry shoppers or maxed out credit cards or .....  Call me the Christmas ostrich but I am sticking my head in the sand to holiday madness, to desire run rampant.

Today a walk in the foggy rainforest, salal glistening in the rain but we, the walkers, protected by the forest canopy.  The dreamy feeling of walking through the forest of hulking green giants in the fog.  Christmas chocolate in the pocket, just in case.  Smoke from the chimney at dusk when we return home.  The reflection of Christmas lights in the window.

I am savouring  a slate wiped clean of commitments and plans by the holidays.  A day for leisurely cooking and baking of plant based treats.  Blogging friend, David Ashton at Snow Branches often reminds us about extending our compassion to the animal world by declining to eat them.  For me I am more conscious of it at this time of year seeing how simple and delicious it is to eat a plant based diet.  Vegan shortbread made with "Earth Balance" and panela sugar, my mother's old carrot pudding recipe (read plum pudding but less rich) made vegan by using canola oil and EB, kale chips (recipe here) a holiday main dish created by my nutritionist daughter that includes nuts and white beans, and many other treats.  The joy of spending time in the kitchen together creating and laughing,

Tenzin Palmo in her book "Reflections on a Mountain Lake" responds to a question regarding vegetarianism & Buddhism by saying: "These days, more and more lamas are becoming vegetarian, especially the younger ones, partly for health reasons and partly because they recognize the hypocrisy of talking about universal compassion and then sitting down to a steak or a chicken dinner."

the modern family enjoys the holidays!

As we spend the evenings together we have been enjoying a few movies on the computer.  I was introduced to "Dr Who" via the Christmas special which reminded me a lot of the old children's story "The Lion, The Witch And the Wardrobe."  We watched a Christmas episode of "Supernatural", a favourite show of my daughter's which gave me nightmares in which I was accused of being a witch at a border crossing.  I pleaded I was not a "dark witch".

The solstice sock monkey

As a new year draws near the following thoughts from Tenzin Palmo form a strong part of my resolve for my myself. "It is not enough to hold vast views.  If there is no correspondence between these views and our conduct, we are in danger.  Guru Padmasambhava once said to King Trisong Detsen, "Your view must be as vast as the sky, but your conduct must be as finely sifted as barley flour."

I hope your holidays are filled with simple joys and the opportunity to contemplate the year that is slipping through our fingers and look forward with gusto to the one tiptoeing up the path.

Friday, December 23, 2011

New Loves, Old Habits, & Gingerbread Cookies

You always knew this about me but I am going to say it out loud now.  I am a little slow.  In many ways, but especially technologically speaking.  I just discovered tumblr.  Roll your eyes now and get it over with.  Yawn a little perhaps.  There, now you've recovered.  I know it is so last decade.  But there you have it, I belong to the cybersnail family, a slowly evolving form of life in this brave new world.

It happened like this. I fell the other day and gave my knee a good bang.  And some good Dharma unravelled.  Down the same old roads of anger and fear and worry.  Boringly intense.  And such a quick flash fire.  Old habits didn't require much stirring to surface, just a bang on the knee.  I could watch and see what I was doing, knowing full well that the stories were not helpful, and yet.....  I followed them like a hungry puppy.

Next morning, lying in bed, chewing over the sore knee (that sounds physically awkward and animal like, don't you think?), I was looking at a couple of tumblr sites.  My daughter came to console the grumpy mom, look at my knee and had me signed on to tumblr and reblogging art that I loved in an instant.  Suddenly the mood had changed and I was smitten.  How quickly we can make that turn.  Or how long we can wallow, given the appropriate circumstances.  Ah, for wise and kind companions.

While my new love, tumblr and I are quite happy together, I am reminded for the gazillionth time of how we have a choice of the stories we tell ourselves.  We can run the poor me video, with it's hungry ghost sound track or we can simply be with what is and even find things that engage our imaginations and hearts.

So I am in this euphoric state of new love, as I was when I first started blogging. (The knee is recovering with the help of traumeel and arnica).  I have disappeared down the tumblr hole and am blown away in the same way I was when I discovered the blog world.  I am amazed at the human imagination, it's wide span and the depth of it's incredible talent.  The art and design out there warms my heart and feeds my soul.  So check out my new tumblr site to see what is catching my eye.  As well as art there is an endless well of great design sites, craft sites, architecture, whatever your pleasure.  I am especially enjoying a site called "Unconsumption"  Visit tumblr, be inspired.  Oh, sorry, the rest of you are already there.

And for a little extra treat, check out the music video posted on Ox herding today.  It's strangely pleasing  and ethereal video called "The Dog Days Are Over" by Florence + The Machine.

These are my holiday treats for you!  All wrapped up in  cellophany cyber gift wrap.  Add coffee and shortbread or tea and ginger cookies and enjoy!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Painting Into The Unknown

I am book obsessed lately, not with all books, but with one in particular.  "No More Secondhand Art" is becoming a dear friend to me lately.  Perhaps more than a friend...  It comes to bed with me most nights, follows me around the house, keeping me company if I sit down for a little rest during the day, languishing lazily with me in front of the fire in the evening.  I like to think we are enjoying each other's company.  My pen wanders hungrily through it's pages, picking it's paper brains.  I have abandoned all prissy concern for bookishness and leave the tender little volume haphazardly propped open like a small tent.  It is constantly whispering the contents of my mind into my ear.  How does it do this?  It speaks so deeply to how I regard art; every adjective, every verb showing how the bodies of art and spiritual practice fit so beautifully together.

The mind I have come to inhabit in this life time is quick.  I say that not in a pride-full way but as an observation.  It is simply a characteristic of my mind.  And it has been my observation that this quickness does not always serve me well.  This quickness is jumpy and often darts several steps ahead to conclusions that are far from accurate.  This quickness skims speedily along the surface, often missing the depth of perception that slower, more measured minds wind themselves around quite naturally.  With this quickness, comes the quickness to judge.  And of course, measuring and assessing of things in this life has it's place, but judgment has this dirty little connotation, don't you think?  It wanders recklessly through my life leaving it's shrapnel deeply embedded.

In creating art, I have come to learn that judgment engenders a lot of frustration and paralysis. It's like a pesky virus that once it has infected the mind,  is difficult to kick out.   "No More Secondhand Art" has several virus busters for us judgmental types (which includes most of us humans to one degree or another).  The section I am really rolling around on my palette right now (cheap pun intended) is one on approaching the unknown.  It reminds me a little of how the Buddhist teacher Dzigar Kongrtrul works.  He talks about working past all points of like and dislike, until the mind lets go of all that.

Here' how London talks about beginning an artistic encounter (the blank page/canvas) : "Our usual response to any real sense of not knowing is to shrink back from the encounter"  Don't we do this in so many ways in our life, all the time?? He goes on to say, "As a consequence we are likely to fall back upon tried ways and disengage with the actual circumstances we find ourselves in, and rerun past scenarios."  I'm thinking here of the depth of habit, the strong pull of those neural pathways.  And London goes on to tell us what street corner this dumps us out on, all confused and grumpy: "The failure to make contact with the reality we are in causes us in turn to feel out of our element and disempowered. In this dispirited state we certainly do not feel in the mood for creative play or adventures of the imagination."  Man he has nailed this one for me!

I think I have been wandering around in this dispirited place for a long time without clearly knowing how to get out, or not having the patience to explore the corridors that lead out.  London has given me permission to wander around and know that it's okay.  I can just wander around, paint brush in hand exploring the delicate crevices of my own judgment until finally judgment gets tired and bored and the space of "not knowing" quietly sneaks in.  I am seeing that it takes a long bit of time of just mucking about to leave the halls of judgment and just be there with my experience of paint and canvas.  And that's okay.  It may take you minutes to get there, it takes me a long time.  London points out that one experience is no better than the other (thanks Peter, I'm so used to judging my judgmental nature as bad (sheesh that's twisted)).

London goes on to talk about how to "use" the facility of "not knowing" wisely.  "Instead of allowing not knowing to paralyze forward progress, we can see not knowing as a frame of mind that occurs at the boundary line between all that is known and all that is yet to be known... This is the fruitful departing edge for all that leads to discovery."  I love how he can encourage me to come willingly to the edge of what usually provokes fear.  This is the place "where newness enters" he reminds us.

He makes a number of  comments that have been helpful for me in actually looking forward to plunging into the deep pool of the unknown.  Here's a few:

"when all is empty, all is ready"
"trust, not assurance glides us past what we know"
"fear is the symptom that great things are being confronted, the boundaries we take to be safe, good and real."
"it's the pregnant silence around which the world turns"
"it's the zero point from which new things spring"

So are you ready to join me in the place of "not knowing" or do you already slip into this place with ease?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

And What Is The Purpose of Art?

Zen & Now 24"x30" Mixed Media on Canvas
My daughter asked me how the "hundred layer painting" was doing a while back.  When she was home in the early fall she had observed me creating painting after painting on the same canvas.  Nothing seemed to hit the mark for me.  I kept thinking something "nicer" might be just around the corner, something that pleased me more, and so I worked on, painting over, rubbing off.  The heavy canvas never protested.  It stood stoically, quietly accepting image after image.  Some days I told myself it was about process, learning to let go, to not be attached to outcomes.  Some days I told myself I was a fool and a liar.  But every morning I got up and worked again.  I was like Sisyphus, rolling a painting uphill.

It was interesting to work day after day and have nothing to show for it.   It was good for a goal oriented monkey like me.  I could feel frustration rise, disappointment crest and disappear.  I could feel hope tugging at the corners of my mouth as something promising looked to be materializing. But then, no, false alarm, a wet rag in hand, I watched tears of water rolling down the fresh paint. And the ever onward, marching soldiers of thought kept me company, sometimes dour and mean spirited and sometimes upward looking and encouraging.

In a strange way it was like a puzzle that needed solving.  I was wrestling with abstract composition on this landscape shaped canvas.  In the end I never really felt like I solved the puzzle but was reasonably happy to stop where I did.  No knives came out, no canvases were flung into far corners of the garden.

I am always just as interested in what the mind is doing, as in what the paint is doing.  For me the way I work, how that process shakes down is like a little home movie.   How can I  reach down into the inner landscape and excavate something, something raw and real, thats the little koan that calls to my curious self.  To understand the "how" in some way seems important to me, like I might crack some code.  Or is it always a matter of groping around in the dark?  Always down a different corridor, bumping into different walls?

I am reading a fabulous book right now called "No More Secondhand Art" subtitled "Awakening The Artist Within" by Peter London.  His premise is that in the modern world we create art for the wrong reasons.  But here, I will let him speak for himself, instead of stand in danger of misrepresenting him:  "The making and teaching of much art today is a fraudulent affair, devoid of large, deep purposes.  Art today seems primarily in the service of decoration, innovation, or self-expression.  At the same time, we seem to have lost contact with the earlier, more profound functions of art, which have always had to do with personal and collective empowerment, personal growth, communion with this world, and the search for what lies beneath and above this world."  His premise is that this was the original function of art and that somehow we have become lost, that we have mistaken the product (beauty) with the intent and aim of the art.  For me, this resonates so deeply.  Yes, this is what I am trying to do but somewhere along the way I get confused and think it's about making "the pretty thing."  Someone has now put a finger on why this isn't working for me.

London suggests this is what we need to do: " In order for us to engage in image making with the fullness of power that this primary act of creation has to offer, we must remove the barrier that otherwise keeps us at a harmless distance from any authentic creative encounter.  The barrier may be characterized as a densely woven thicket of everything we have ever been told about art.  If we are to engage in the act of creation directly and fully, we must set aside all that is secondhand news and bear witness to our direct encounter with the world as if for the first time."

And for fear that I might type his whole book into this blog post, I will end with his comment on the function of art, "... first it is to become personally enlightened, wise, and whole.  Then and as a consequence of the former function, the purpose of this wisdom, the purpose of art, is to make the community enlightened wise and whole.... If art is much more than beauty and novelty, if it is truly to be a source of renewal, a celebration of life, a means of awakening we have to start rethinking the whole creative enterprise."  And really the aim of art and spiritual practice, well it sounds like pretty much the same thing when I read London's words.  Art, practice, meditation,  really we're traveling the same parallel roads, don't you think?  Paint brush, meditation cushion, walk, sit, run a brush across a canvas....