Monday, July 27, 2015

Working With Hope, Fear And Blocks

Field Notes 16"x16"
Life is full of painting right now. My work table is covered in open tubes of paint, bits of oily rag, and multiple canvases and panels. I am doing an online course called "The Sacred Arts" with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, though nothing about my workspace looks sacred. The focus of the course  is creativity and part of that is working with what blocks us.

It is a given that true art, whatever it's form, comes from somewhere other than the head. Does it come from somewhere deep inside us or are we tapping into something outside of us, or maybe a combination of both? A lot of artists will tell you," I didn't feel like I painted that or wrote that, I felt like something came through me."

In the west we put a lot of value on our thinking minds.  The old "I think, therefore I am" permeates us at such a deep level we hardly notice it.  We believe in the power of our minds and in part we are right.  What we believe strongly influences what we do.  And yet it is not the whole picture.  My old Zen teacher used to say, "the mind is a good servant, but not a very good master.  This sounds a little medieval but there is truth in it. Sometimes the thinking mind is not enough.  Sometimes the thinking mind is the obstacle.

How To Get There 16"x 16"
In this course we have been exploring what blocks us in expressing our authentic creative selves.  We've been exploring fear and hope as blockages to our work.  Pema Chodron says the human condition consists of bouncing back and forth between hope and fear.  To allow our creative voices to speak we need to move beyond these conditions. Working from a place of stillness and spaciousness allows us to be open to what wants to be expressed through us. And yet we can't brush aside or ignore those hopes and fears.  What are your fears about your creative self and work? Do you fear you are a talentless lout? Do you hope it will be easy? Those thoughts flying below your radar might be standing between you and your best work.

On Mountain Time 12"x 16"
The course is a reorientation for me. I have big tendency to work from my head, to muck, to get frustrated, to believe I can't yet hope I will. (I think that last bit should be added to the definition of insanity!) And in the end it is about the having habits that support us and spending time working.  Ultimately our work will teach us everything we need to know if we pay attention. And the process is transferable to the ultimate art, the most precious canvas of our own lives.  Whatever we learn from our art practice seeps out into our life and the other way around. It is a rich, interconnected tapestry that we have the good fortune to be weaving. May your needle be sharp and your glasses never far away.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Nature, The Ultimate Artist And Teacher?

Kanaskin Lake, BC
I think the artistry of nature has always astounded humans.  To view its sheer vastness, its startling beauty can leave us with only an oooo or an awww coming out of our cake holes.  A lot of art is either inspired by the natural world or seeks to imitate it.  As an abstract artist I'm not so interested in art that seeks to imitate the natural world though I can see how an image of a stunning scene above the couch would bring peace and joy to a home.  I am more interested in the translation of the natural world by the artist into form that evokes some feeling or response in us.  But that is my particular preference. Art is like spiritual practice in a way.  No one thing suits us all and so the many expressions of art. In a recent talk, Stephen Batchelor commented that the Buddha said his teachings were like medicine. Batchelor reasoned that not everyone has the same "illness" so not everyone needs the same medicine. So for art, if it feeds our soul, not all of us are nourished by the same thing. Even the same person may need different food at different times. Sometimes our soul requires peace, sometimes fiery inspiration.

Above Dawson City, Yukon, after midnight
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a teacher in the Bon tradition, likes to remind of the healing and nourishing qualities of the natural world, how just a short time connecting with the natural world can improve our state of mind and health. The earth can ground us, the sun can warm us and inspire joy, the water of a stream can remind us of the natural flow of all life.  A big sky offers a feeling of spaciousness and the wind shows us how things just move on through.  We can focus on these aspects of the elements to help us become more spacious, inspired, grounded or flowing or we can simply experience it all without thought and be nourished by it's wise and welcome presence in our life. Especially if we spend a lot of time indoors (and most of us do) or in cities, it can be interesting to commit to spending more time immersing ourselves in the natural world and experiment with its impact on us.

Rain passing through at Kinaskin Lake
As I travel through northern BC and the Yukon I am struck by the sheer expanses of untouched wilderness. With less tree cover than I am used to in the rain forested area where I live my heart is deeply touched by the spacious feeling of the big sky.  There is a drama to this landscape, it's wild openness, it's ability to startle, it's rough beauty. One feels a privilege in being able to witness it; to see the alpine tundra with it's permafrost along the Dempster Highway, to see a Ptarmigan half white still from winter, flowers bursting everywhere, wise about the shortness of opportunity. Vastness and drama are the words that come to mind when viewing this landscape.  One gets a sense of the forces of nature, the strength and intractability of the natural world.

Tombstone Park, view from Dempster Highway
To spend time in this open place, to watch weather pass through, experience the strangeness of 24 hours of light and it's effect on the body, to watch bears saunter out to the road with little regard for our presence, reminds me of our smallness in the grand scheme of things.  Someone recently remarked about all the talk of "saving the planet" but in fact what we are really concerned with is saving ourselves.  When you see the vastness of the natural world one senses the planet will survive despite the grave damage we may do, that it will remain in some form long after we have, in our greed and ignorance laid waste to ourselves.  If this sounds negative in some way, it is not meant to, it is simply a reflection based on the seeing the strength, intractability and vastness of this landscape.  With a bow to the unknowable source and presence of it all.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Planning The Trip 12"x12" mixed media
"Let go of your attachment to the object you desire and make your desire the experience of staying focused on working toward your goal.” -Thomas Sterner  from "The Practicing Mind"
It's good advice for our art practice but really it applies to pretty much anything we might want to do. 

Or more simply we might just work, just doing what needs or wants to be done.  There is a freedom in that and who doesn't want to be free?  And what is it we want to be free from, anyway? Freedom from our stories, our complaints, our thinking mind that never seems to stop and is so hard to please? I've been reading a great book called "The Untethered Soul" by Michael Singer.  In lovely plain language he reminds us that we are not our thinking mind but the consciousness that can observe our thoughts. Just stepping back from our thoughts offers us a lot of space. We can even feel amused by the crazy non stop narrative that runs through our heads.

Field Notes 11"x14" Mixed Media
I have been a lazy blogger (does that sound a bit like something someone might call you in an English pub?).  And it seems the less I blog, the less I have to say.  I think that's true in the world too. The quieter we get the more we realize that not so much needs to be said, which brings me back to the mind and it's job in the world, which is to think.  In Buddhist terms, the mind is just another sense organ, like our eyes and ears and nose.  The object of the mind is thought.  The nose smells, the mind thinks. Pretty basic, really but we take our minds so seriously, more seriously than our nose, (unless of course something like freshly baked cookies are involved). We can build a whole story on a random thought, let it ruin our day, make us angry or depressed. 

Before Sunset 12"x12" mixed media
And if you find your mind disturbing you with problems, Michael Singer offers an interesting suggestion: "Don't ask, "what should I do about it? Ask, "what part of me is being disturbed by this? If you ask, "what should I do about it?, you've already fallen into believing that there really is a problem outside that must be dealt with. If you want to achieve peace in the face of your problems, you must understand why you perceive a particular situation as a problem."

And there you have it, a way to relate to the conjuring, magician like mind that is always inventing and manufacturing our reality. Perhaps more often these days, we can just immerse ourselves the greeness of this wonderful season, smell the rich scent of the earth and hear the birds readying their nests. Maybe we can step back from the stories we might tell ourselves about everything and everyone we meet.  Maybe, just maybe we can live in the freshness of having a direct relationship with our world instead of having it explained to us by our minds.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What's Your Relationship With Your Work?

Tracking 8"x 8" cold wax on panel
On my last post someone made the comment that they were interested in their relationship with their work.  Hmmm, I had never really thought about it. My relationship with my work? Did we need therapy or counseling, my work and I? Hmmm, I frequently think about my relationships with the people around me. I try to listen, I attempt compassion and understanding. I remind myself that I am not the centre of the universe.  I know, I know, that surprises you too, right?  But my paintings, that I spend so many hours with, do I ever think about these canvases and panels covered in paint in this relational kind of way??  Even this was telling, to relegate my work to the lot of "inanimate objects".  Do my paintings have a soul, do they have feelings and needs? It was a bit shocking to see my own insensitivity, up close and personal (well, I mean again :)  And perhaps you are a better painter and are tssking at me as you read, sucking air between your teeth and shaking your head.  I apologize for disturbing you in this way, really I do. I hope I have not caused any small capillaries to implode or your toe nails to fall off.

Crossing The Earth At Dusk 16"x20" 
And yet in this modern world of ours we frequently divide the world in this way, the animate, the inanimate, sentient beings and other, TV dinners and real food.  It is a type of unawareness I think. People who live(d) closer to the natural world perhaps are more aware of how the world is filled with energy and spirit that do not identify as sentient beings. Everything is alive in it's own way, don't you think?

In slight horror, I began to investigate my relationship with my work. It was a humbling experience to see that I am not a good listener.  In fact I am quite deaf to what my paintings might be saying to me most of the time.  If you were my painting, you wouldn't give me the time of day. I realized I am bossy, often beginning work without any enquiry as to what might be needed, to what the painting might want, suggest, be asking for.  You'd probably give me a smack upside the head if we worked in the same office.

I certainly am not at all good company for my work.  I rarely just hang out with it, sit and appreciate. I think I don't really know how to be a good companion to my work.  I watched a documentary a while back on Leonardo da Vinci and when he was painting The Last Supper he would visit the painting for days on end and just look at it, never lifting a brush. Now that's companionship, that's listening.

The Trees Are Calling Your Name 12"x12"
This whole relationship can of worms has prompted me to work in different ways, though I must say listening comes hard.  I see how the mind wants to get started when it  has just the tiniest idea, how it thinks it knows so much when it has considered so little. I have realized this promotes what I refer to as "mucking".  I have noticed that when I consciously generate feelings of warmth and appreciation for the parts of the work I like (instead of complaining about what I don't like) that the state generated is more conducive to good work.  It's all about process, right?

I notice a feeling of tenderness toward these little entities, these brave, new, embryos of paintings.  I can remember my Zen teacher used to say in relation to our practice and all the goofy things we do, "the eternal can wait forever, how long can you wait?"  I get the same feeling about the paintings.  They are in no hurry.  They humour, they tolerate and they wait.  They wait for me to learn, they wait for me to see, they wait for me to listen.  They are the best teachers.  Unlike me, they are never bossy or frustrated. They never demand or criticize.  I think sometimes they smile and wink and call gently from the corner.  And then they always look so pleased when I happen to get it right.  Who could ask for more in a relationship really?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Painting, Chopping Vegetables & A Bow To The Spiritual Badger

Why I Love The Wind 16"x20"
I was chopping vege for dinner one night with my daughter, who does some meditation coaching. "How's the painting going?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know", I said.  It seems like I move paint around on the canvas and never really like anything that turns up.  It feels like I paint the same thing over and over and feel frustrated that I'm not getting anywhere." She looked at me and said, "hmm, that sounds like the same thing you said two years ago."

"That does sound about right," I said, appreciating the honesty and her willingness to share even though I had a knife in my hand.

"So you're not getting anything you like when you paint? Do you know what you like?" she asked

"I like something light. I like some scratching and texture. I like greens and blues and neutrals, greys, soft transitions from one colour to another.  But I rarely seem to get something that pleases me."

16"x 16" Coming In For A Landing

"I wonder if you're seeing a painting as problem that you want solved and out of the way?" She pondered

"Hmm, that's true, I think.  I want a satisfying outcome without too much trouble.  And it feels like I've been at this for a long time without much reward.  It's interesting, because this conversation makes me think of my friend Jeane Myers over at Art It.  I love the way she thinks!  She really perks up when she has a creative problem to solve in a painting.  That's juicy to her and she rises to the challenge. It really makes her curious and interested."  (I also added inappropriately that I wanted her brain.)

"I also love that she says she learns from her paintings," I added.  It seems I'm not the best student and my paintings have given up on me.

"So," said the coachy daughter, "what if you focused more on being curious about the process when you go to paint, rather than the actual painting.

11"x14" How To Get From Here To There

So I made some notes so I could share with you (and with me) and the next time I went to paint I tried to remember to:

-If you are used to thinking of your creative work as a problem or fraught with problems, sense how this feels and try to adopt a different stance.
-Be curious about how you work, watching what you do and how it makes you feel (miraculously I am a whole lot neater when I paint after doing this.  Before I seemed to rush and a mess of brushes and paper grew around me. That made me feel unsettled as the chaos grew)
-Be curious about what emerges on the canvas.  Take time to stand back a lot more than usual.  Jeane talks about having a conversation with the painting.  I think a lot of the time I don't give the painting enough space to say anything. I am like the friend that blathers on. Poor painting never gets a word in edgewise.
-Notice how you feel inside. When I felt agitated and tight, I found it was time to stop and refocus, otherwise I went on to mucking (which could go on for a very long time and feel very unsatisfying.)  Sometimes it's just time to go for coffee, have a walk, take a break.
-Importantly, trust that you can solve any "creative situation" you find in front of you. (In other words, believe you are up to the task.)  This, I found creates a very powerful, positive feeling.
-Contemplate situations in life where you are successful and try to transfer that attitude to painting. Do you write with ease, cook confidently? How do you feel inside when you trust that things are going to work out?  Sometimes it's all about attitude.  Maybe it's always, all about attitude?
-Sometimes just do the opposite of what you might normally do to shake things up.  Do you always paint in a certain palette?  Do the opposite. Stand up. Sit down. Use paper. Listen to music, or different music. Try silence or spoken word.

I have found it so helpful to consider the deeper aspects of what I was doing and how I was approaching it. I learned first hand how doing the same thing over and over is the definition of insanity (or at least frustration).  I learned that focusing on the process, strangely creates a better outcome than focusing on the painting (or specific work at hand).

And I will end with a story that my coach/daughter told me about a yoga teacher that her friend called the "spiritual badger".  As they stood holding a really difficult pose, he said, "and how you do this, is how you do everything in life." With many bows to the spiritual badger.



Tuesday, December 23, 2014

After Yesterday Before Tomorrow

Saturday's Flight 9"x12"

What you already are
Before the picnic
The ground of awakening
In the presence of a tree

Collect no jewels
A time of bewilderment
An inside job
Already free

No lock on the gate
Where hope is born
The idea of a journey
In the present tense

As you really are

Taking Refuge
In your present condition
Below the mind's radar

The truth about yourself
Sudden Radical Insight

No matter what

Some block is gone
A door has opened
Stepping outside
Not a bunch of thoughts

The whole world wants to stop here
A simple thing, Transformation
Lift your face to the sky

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Seasonal Koan: What's The Opposite of Namaste?


10"x10" Deep In The Forest
It's that time of year when the opportunity to see if you're enlightened offers itself up to you. It's kind of like a little gift disguised as family dressed up in holiday duds. It's our collective opportunity to put our practice where our mouth is, if you care to see it that way. You know that quip, "if you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family." Well here come the holidays. My mother used to say we all have our own "mishigas" (which means craziness in Yiddish) and this time of year brings it out.  Mostly we panic, grit our teeth and fall victim to our old familiar "pain speech".  Here they are, our "famous person(s) ringing the doorbell, all ready to drag us through our personal mishigas.  It's kind of like the reverse of "Namaste", it's "the pain in me recognizes the pain in you", and we're off to the races.  We become the living embodiment of the email that should have been left in the "draft" folder.

16"x16" Crossing The Inner Landscape


But there are other ways, really, I'm not kidding you, not that I'm so skilled, but I'm working on it. This fall I attended several retreats with a Buddhist teacher whose wisdom speaks directly to my heart: Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. He talks about how we are constantly "draining" ourselves, depleting our precious human battery. And it's bad enough when that happens to your car, but we tend to forget  about what's under our human hood. And when we feel our depletion do we know how to nourish and recharge ourselves? Do we think TV or a glass of wine, or a little treat might do the trick? Perhaps temporarily, but then we end right back there in drain mode. Tenzin Wangyal's teachings aim at connecting us with the stillness of the body, the silence of our speech and the spaciousness of our minds so that we might consistently nourish that deep place in us the is the source of our strength, peace, creativity and fearlessness.
10"x10" Notes From The Evening

How do we remember to pause and connect with our inner refuges of stillness, silence and spaciousness when Uncle Henry tells the same story for the 10th time?  Tenzin Wangyal offers us a great little trick. When we feel the tug of that pain that's just the reminder we need.  And mostly we're pretty familiar with those painful feelings, it's just we forget the next step.  We either sink deeply into the pain or reject it completely, or maybe dance between the two. His suggestion is that the nagging thoughts of the egoic mind that are constantly finding fault can remind us to connect with the stillness of our bodies. The nattering of our internal voice or perhaps our unkind speech to others is the reminder to connect with silence.  And our crazy imaginings, run wild can offer us the opportunity to sense the space that is always around and within us.

16"x16" Cloud Mountain

In his attempts to help us bring our practice into the parts of our life that need it the most he suggests we think of it as a game.  Our challenge is how can we win at this tricky, moving, ever challenging game of deinstalling the things that push our buttons.  This can help make our "problems" lively in  an upbeat way that encourages us to work with them rather than lament them or crumple from them into the perfect little Christmas ball.  What's your game this season?  May it be merry and bright. 

ps: with many thanks to technical wizardry of Lynette Monteiro for helping me retrieve this lost post from the ether. Many bows to her.