Thursday, October 17, 2013

Brain Surgery Without Scalpels

10"x10" Mixed Media with Cold wax  "Setting The Inner Compass"
Near the end of September I had the pleasure of doing a weekend retreat with Rick Hanson.  I really like how he marries the Dharma to current brain research.  He even gives it a fancy layer cake kinda name: "applied neurodharma".  I'm all about the applied part of the layer cake.  If our spiritual practice doesn't help us lead increasingly saner lives, then what it's all about?  Can we be a little kinder to that neighbour who seems annoying, a little less reactive and self centred when family needs call? Can we just be quiet and listen more sometimes?

One of the major tenets of Buddhist thought is "there is suffering in this world".  I know people that say Buddhism is "negative" because it focuses on suffering but to quote John Cleese, it's really just stating the "bleeding obvious."  It didn't invent suffering, it just stopped long enough to observe this phenomena.  I used to sit with people in my old Sangha who would say they had no suffering in their lives.  This always made me raise my inner eyebrow.

6"x6" mixed media with cold wax "Following The Dots"

I liked the matter of fact way Hanson defined suffering.  He handled it like this: "Craving causes suffering and what causes craving but states of deficiency and deficit." So when we feel liked we're missing something, that we "need" something we are in a state of suffering, be it mild or intense.  If we're sick and we want to be well, that "wanting" can cause us all kinds of agitation and discomfort. If we want a cup of coffee, that can be a pretty mild form of craving (or not), one we might not even identify as suffering.

He went on to round things up with his trade mark clarity.  As humans we have 3 basic needs.
-the need to feel safe
-the need to feel satisfied
-the need to feel connected.

If these needs are not met we wander into states of deficiency which trail off into states of suffering (not one of the 50 states to the south of me, though it could be present in any of them)

Our need to feel safe relates to the oldest part of our brain, the limbic system and is the part of the brain that's hardest to change.  This is the "fight or flight" part or as Hanson referred to it "the avoidance system" of the brain.  So if you ever wondered why it is so hard to step out of the fear response, it's because this is the hardest part of the brain to change.  Hard to teach an old brain new tricks? Apparently.

This ancient part of the brain spends a lot of time scanning the environment for danger.  While this stirs anxiety and reactivity, we can thank this part of our brain for our basic survival as humans.  Hanson suggested that we spend time reminding ourselves that we are safe in the present moment (if of course this is the truth), noticing and taking in our sense of safety in our home, our car, wherever we may be. When we're feeling safe, we are open to experience feelings of peace.

6"x6" mixed media "Highways That Lead Home"
Our second need as humans is to feel satisfied or accomplished, as opposed to frustrated or disappointed.  This relates to what Hanson called our "approach and reward system". The sub cortex or mammalian part of the brain handles our needs for satisfaction.  Here we are concerned with opportunities for food, for career, for the creative aspirations of our lives.  When these needs are met we feel contented and grateful.

Our third need is to feel connected to others.  You may have read  stories of babies failing to thrive in orphanages because they are deprived of the very basic human need for connection.  Our cortex is the source of our primate need for relationship, inclusion and our need for basic human warmth.  Our need to be seen, liked and appreciated are part of our basic human needs.  This is the part of us that feels love, compassion and kindness in relation to others.  The absence of  feelings of connection are sources of hurt, loneliness, and unworthiness.  We have all experienced these whether real or imagined.
6"x8" mixed media "Pilgrimage To The East"

Hanson talked about green zones and red zones as ways of thinking about these systems.  When our needs are met, we are living in the green zone.  If we feel deficient in any one of these areas we tip over into deficiency and find ourselves in the red zone.

One of the things I found  interesting was how we can deal with the "deficient" states when we find ourselves there.  I think finding our way out of the red zone is often a source of confusion.  If you are feeling deficient in the "need for connection" area of life ie, feeling lonely or left out", it's not hugely helpful to notice that you feel safe, or to work more diligently on your career aspirations.  That may improve things slightly or temporarily, but the real need for love and connection is not being addressed.  This clarity is so helpful when we (or others) are experiencing suffering or feelings of things not being right.  And while a bag of popcorn tastes good, it doesn't really address feelings of unworthiness or feeling left out.   Hanson recommends taking in the good in all areas of these systems, reminding ourselves regularly where in our lives we are safe, accomplished and loved.  Over time we can actually change the structure of our brains by taking in the good in our lives.  And who among us doesn't wish for a new brain sometimes??

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Dharma of Art or Two Days In Jeane's Studio

 painting by Jeane Myers

It's amazing how things fit together if you let them. I recently spent a weekend on retreat with Rick Hanson and then slipped below the 49th parallel to spend some time in the studio of Jeane Myers from Art It.  The retreat and the studio time melted deliciously into a unified whole, where painting and dharma practice had the sweet, tantalizing flavour of a favoured treat. The days in Jeane's light filled studio were punctuated with conversations that plunged immediately into the deep end of the pool. "It's not really about the individual piece, it's more about the process and how it connects to the rest of the way we live our life." I'm paraphrasing Jeane here. Yes, yes, I have seen how painting is the condensed milk version of what I spill out in the world.

She asked questions that I stumbled and sputtered over, like "why do you paint?"  This is not casual, filling the space question.  Jeane, a former theatre director is gathering; gathering information so she might help you find that button you dropped on the sidewalk and have been searching for, forever.

Jeane Myers Studio

If you stop by here once in a while you have heard me whine about frustration with my process, how I feel I don't know what I'm doing and that I am never happy with what I paint. (that's the Coles notes on my whinging as the Brits call it).  And there are great similarities in the way I go about my life, hoping for the quick, tidy fix and on to the next thing.  "Distress tolerance" Hanson calls it and it's a muscle I'm working on.

Another studio view

I have followed Jeane's blog for some time now and I LOVE her work. On many occasions I have been stopped in my gumboots as she obliterates a painting that I would have called a keeper.  This fearlessness and dedication to growth and process hooked me.  I see in her a person that is willing to stand on the edge, who rejects security in favour of growth.  In a way, the how she does it, is almost more important than what she does, for me.  But it's what she does that stops the eye and makes it settle down for a closer look.

We are such interesting creatures, us humans. What I told Jeane I was on the hunt for was "form" in my work.  I felt that abstract composition was a big hairy mystery to me, well actually I left out the hairy part.   By hour 2 of our time together a little light started flashing on the internal dashboard.  I didn't really come to learn about form and composition.  I came to learn how to have a conversation with my painting. And isn't that life?  Often what we think we need is not really it.  We just need a wise guide to push aside the tangled branches and show us where the trail really is.

small work I did in Jeane's studio

I needed to be able to learn from my work.  And doesn't that translate into every place in life? If someone can give us the tools, we can fish forever, instead of constantly coming back like a little bird, hoping someone will feed us.  Jeane displayed a razor sharp knack of cutting through the tangle and getting to  the real issue.  And while I had read about this "conversing with your work" I just never really got it.  I had puzzled over John Daidoo Loori's descriptions of standing in front of his work and waiting for something to shift. For me shift never happened, maybe without the f, but that's another story.

Somehow by the end of the first day, somewhere inside me I understood what "having a conversation" meant. By having me constantly turn my work around, it somehow released my busybody, thinking mind. That simple process freed a deeper, inner eye.  Suddenly I felt more comfortable, more connected to the work.  My goodness that canvas and I were chattering away at each other. I teased that I was channeling Jeane.  But in truth there is something communicated energetically by someone who knows what they are doing and has trust and confidence in the process.

Jeane's work waiting to go to the Simon Mace Gallery

In one of her posts Jeane talked about finding the "arbitrary" parts of a painting, the parts that don't work, the parts that detract and weaken the real meat (tofu for you vegetarians) of the piece.  When she wrote about this in her blog, it seemed like she was speaking in tongues.  What?  Arbitrary?  I couldn't imagine identifying the arbitrary.  And yet as we worked and looked and talked, slowly I could see it.  I am still on training wheels with this one, but I have some sense of "the arbitrary".  Before it truly sounded like a foreign language.

It was 2 days packed with so much learning, more than I could ever imagine.  Sometimes it felt like things were being communicated by osmosis.  As a teacher, Jeane displayed a complete lack of ego and  generosity of spirit.  "Here, what do you think is arbitrary in my painting?  How would you do it if it was in your style?"  She was so interested in figuring out the puzzle of what I needed.  My hunt was her challenge.  You can travel a long way to find a Dharma teacher with that same curiosity and attention to the task.

More of Jeane's painted goodness

One of the things that impressed me the most about Jeane was her understanding of how to learn from her process and the actual piece in front of her.  I loved drinking in her positive attitude (no that would be guzzling). At one point she said something like, "you have your pros and your cons. What is really interesting and where all the excitement is, is in the "cons".  That's where the work and growth is."  As someone who has spent a lot of time feeling frustrated by the challenge this was like being teleported to another planet.  Sometimes we have to look through someone else's eyes to be able to really see.

So we never took out a colour wheel or talked much about paints or galleries.  We jumped right off the deep end, me with my water wings and Jeane swimming out in front, calling out that the water was fine and that you could learn a lot from just putting one arm in front of the other.

And while my retreat with Rick Hanson was great, I can't even begin to communicate what 2 days in Jeane's studio were like.  I wish for you all, whatever your art, a mentor, an art spirit that is just the right fit for you, to encourage you and to fish out of you all that is good and amazing. It's in there.  Some people excel at helping you dip into the pond of what's hiding in your heart. If they're like Jeane they actually thrive on the challenge.