Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Showing Up

We sat with one of our artists' groups last night, and the discussion started out centering around the question of giving oneself permission NOT to work. One of the things we like to stress is the need to simply show up, as a first step to getting the work done--but of course showing up to oneself does not necessarily mean showing up in the studio or, in my case, at the writing desk. There are times when it's enough to show up in different ways. As Ellie often points out, getting the work done as an artist can sometimes mean doing the dishes, or taking a walk, or gardening, or reading a book, or seeing the work of another artist at an exhibition... And, as someone else pointed out, the mind continues to do its work even when we're not aware of its activity. One painter in our midst gave the example of several years spent without access to paint or studio--but also without deviating from his sense of himself or his intention as an artist.

All very true. Still, my own thinking is that the actual practice of creative activity is as essential as the practice involved in meditation. In my experience, showing up in other ways is fine, but it doesn't get the writing done. I've heard people tell me many times that their form of meditation is to listen to music or gaze at a flower. Or, of course, in that now famous phrase, to carry water or chop wood. I myself see this as being one of the desirable results of meditation--to do even the smallest things in a full state of consciousness. Meditation, for me, though, is different. Meditation is showing up in that particular way, sitting in silence with closed eyes and attention on the breath.

As I see it, too, it's not a matter of just watching the restless processes of the mind, or of giving the mind a rest. It's true, certainly, that the mind is working constantly, and all too often in useless pursuits. Mindfulness, as I understand it, is about being aware of what it's up to at any given moment. Meditation, though, gives me the opportunity to grab a hold of the mind and direct it, to train it to do my bidding for a while and not its own. Left to its own devices, it can fly off in a hundred different directions. Sitting is when I try my best--and always with only qualified success--to get it to do exactly what I tell it to do. The breath gives me object of attention. When the mind wanders, bring it back...

As for the choice not to show up in the studio or at the writing desk, I want to be sure that if I make that choice, it's not dictated by some old unconscious habit of mind but in full, honest consciousness. In my own experience, fear is both the great enemy and the great friend. If some old interior voice is telling me that I'm wasting my time, that I'll never succeed, that I should find a more profitable way to spend my energy... I want to be fully aware that it's that old interior voice and not some wishful, inspired notion that doing the dishes is as great as showing up at the writing desk. I want to be sure that my mind is not inventing wonderful excuses to cover for my fear. If I get to be conscious of the pattern that's controlling my behavior--be it fear or some other mindless, learned reaction--then the feeling becomes my friend.

My own fear works in subversive ways. Most commonly, it insists that I won't have anything more to say the next time I sit down at the computer, and compensates by plaguing me at unwanted moments--even during meditation--with constant worries about what to say, what to say... Of course, this has a completely paralyzing effect on all creative thought. I asked Than Geoff, this past Sunday, whether his mind still wants to write when he's meditating and, if so, what he does about it. He conceded that yes, he still catches himself writing and that when he does, his response is a simple "Not now." I especially liked his answer when another sitter asked him how long he meditates each day. "Five hours," he said--and must have noticed our reaction, because he added, cheerfully: "But I'm a professional." We all had a good laugh at that.

Well, I'm no professional in that sphere, and I don't claim to know the answers about how it should be done. But I am beginning to understand what works for me. And when my mind begins to write while I'm trying to sit, I remind myself to respond with a simple, Not now.


carly said...

P: I wish I could understand the need for that kind of meditation. You have used the word fear several times here. Is meditation a good remedy for fear?

I've heard that Buddhism attempts to bring movement, of the mind, to rest by ebbing it away in nirvana, and about 'sesshin', concentrating the mind. And research showed monks near the Dali Lama came out of research sessions with a better mind-frame. But considering the practice necessary, in this environment of fear and frustration, that seems like a long shot to me. That's why I've vested my time in practicing rest where it feels natural, and movement in the mind when the time is correct. Especially essential is something CREATIVE to focus upon. Creative PURPOSE in what's right. The man without such purpose is adrift and at the mercy of moods. For we can relate and evaluate everything in our lives to our purpose. For me, passion and creative desire are a secure area. Petty passions and desires are easy to quell. I just say to myself, "That's petty and stupid", and stop investing time in it. But true passion produces great accomplishments. Study the great Buddhist calligraphers and painters. They had enormous passion for their Zen brushworks.

I was building a wooden gate Monday. Outside, in my work area, using my hands, with the feel of the cool shade, the nature around me, wood and tools in hand, the hawks flying overhead. I prefer to build something out there than to think abstractly sometimes. I love the feel of working materials in my hands in perfect action. It's like a dancer who's feet love the floor or pianist who's fingers love the ivory. It's freeing, no other thoughts can intrude.

A Greek Orthodox priest friend of mine, Theodore, who paints icons and church interiors, says my inherited manual dexterity gave me my analytical mind, which infuriates people who don't want to understand everything. And others who have no passion for creative 'non-action'.

Doing art, my hands love to move the paintbrush every bit as much as my eyes like to see the effects. The manually dexterous in easel painting is part of the content. Non-painters do not understand this concept, i think, that the physical act is an element of connectedness. This is why they don't get as much out of easel painting, those aspects of process don't satisfy their senses. Buddhist brush paintings, for instance, show that each master had a brushstroke every bit as individual as handwriting, a thumbprint of creative essence.

Anyway, my problem is dwelling on dark thoughts. For usually there is little I can do about bad news. And stress comes to me when I see the interconnectedness between what is out there and how it adversely affects my life, like wanting to create art other people don't want, my health insurance premium, or a bomb entering Long Beach Harbor. But thinking about nothing in this culture is impossible to me. I would need to go to a place like Koyasan, Japan to meditate, with other monks, in an atmosphere designed specifically for the practice. I wouldn't even attempt it here. I seems a discipline designed for a monastic life.

Instead I try to make sense of much of it, by understanding the relationships and laws at work on the invisible level. Contemplation becomes a great thing in that case. It combats fear. Most men stop before they fully understand and are thrown into an unstable state. Whereas the blows and turmoil of life glance off the master of deeper consciousness.

Our passion for true art is one tool to facilitate our concentration and contemplation. This is why I shun inferior conceptualization. As a Buddhist master once said, "It takes a lot of zazen to create a painting".

Cardozo said...

"not now" is a great mantra I haven't tried. Because of the way my own particular mental pathologies work, I normally go with "everything's fine" or "relax."

But "not now" may serve the purpose better. It acknowledges that sometimes the mind is going to wander and simply states that putting constraints on the wandering/dwelling can be a good thing, and even my anxiety-prone brain can't argue with that.

PeterAtLarge said...

Good to hear from you, Cardozo. A welcome voice from the old Bush Diaries! Carly, I don't see any real disagreement in our thinking here: I go along easily with everything you say. For me, however, the silent breath meditation has proved an added and indispensibly useful way to train an otherwise undisciplined mind! I've found that it helps not only with fear, but with all other emotional responses, as well as with physical sensations (pain!) and mental activity. This may be just a matter of different strokes...! Cheers, PaL

PK said...

There is one Monk that I heard on PBS. He had a very deeeep Om. When my mind strays it goes straight to that deep Om sound until I can get back on breathing properly. It's very simple, and I can even hear it in my ears believe it or Everyone has thier word or words that trigger that blank area for us. Hope you found yours. Been a beautiful day today, looking forward to another tomorrow. Sleep well Peter...