Besides heralding the return of the flower’s bloom and a slow shift toward warmer days , springtime at the monastery brings with it a flurry of activity distinct from the business of the rest of the year. The months of April and May are known as “retreat season” by monastery residents, who participate and staff all sorts of workshops and silent retreats during this time. While we lead various sesshin and zen-style weekend retreats frequently throughout the year, during the spring we open our monastery to guest teachers in other Buddhist traditions, as well as secular teachings that we believe to be enriching and beneficial.
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic one held during this time is “The Painting Experience,” led by Stewart Cubley. It is a workshop whose schedule consists of mostly- you guessed it- painting. Though it was unclear to me why we were holding this sort of retreat at a Zen monastery, Great Vow has been holding them for at least five years, and all of those who had attended spoke highly of its results. Just as zazen has become an integral part of my spiritual journey, I trusted that this mysterious painting retreat, despite its absence of silence and meditation, could bring me farther on my path.
I have always had a mild interest in the visual arts. Due to this slight affinity and the mandation of an arts curriculum in my education, I have taken art classes from preschool through college. I have been taught various techniques, rules and exercises for increasing my dexterity, improving the quality of my final work, developing the conceptual complexity of my finished product. Stewart designs the workshop so that all of those skills taught to me in virtually every other artistic environment are irrelevant. You are given no guidelines or technical teachings. There are no prompts or assignments. The aspects of critiquing or grading the works are also stripped away. You are not allowed to comment on anyone else’s piece. There is no final show-and-tell or evaluation. Stewart and his two assistant teachers Annie and Lydia discuss the content and meaning of your piece with you without any mention of its quality or artistic merit.
Another way of summarizing these guidelines is that, rather than helping you get past your previous lack of knowledge or naivety around painting, they help you get past the mind.
Thoughts will come, surely, whether we’re seated for meditation or standing in front of a blank piece of paper, a paintbrush hanging limply from our hand. On and on this world will hum while my mind keeps busy, waiting to be grabbed and spun out, enveloping me like a gauzy cocoon. When I walk from my room to the monastery cafeteria and my mind jumps to some far-off worry it has conjured, or some past mistake I cannot undo no matter how many times I replay it, the swallows flutter past me to their nests on the eaves and a view of the green valley with its layers of hills and trees and fields rests below the shifting sky. Where do all of these thoughts of past, future, and fantasy exist beyond the mind? The difficult conversation I fear having will never turn out as terribly as I had predicted. Memory, projection, imagination, as we all know, are subjective, myopic pictures of a vast world. I can spend most, if not all, of my life shrunk into this little space of words and images, sensations turned to thoughts turned to feelings turned to actions, again and again, unaware of the myriad things that exist beyond my mental formations.
It is not a matter ridding oneself of thought, for they can be useful just as much as they can be hindering. During the painting experience, my thoughts have helped me painting realistic representations of mountains, oceans, figures. They have reminded me to clean my brushes off when I am done with a certain color of paint and to wear my apron to avoid splattering my clothing. Both Zen and Stewart’s workshop do not emphasize turning off the mind completely, but discerning when to listen and when to ignore its pleas. Often, when standing in front of a painting in process, thoughts began swirl as to the quality, the value of my work. I knew in those instances my thoughts were trying to protect me. Due to its limited view of the vast world, the mind often abhors the unknown for all it could bring, all it cannot see or predict or control. Allowing my mind alone to dictate my painting would provide me safety, certainty, a sense of knowing. But if I let my mind control this creative process, then I will never strike out from its set rules and regulations. Rather than giving us a set of guidelines or standards to fulfill, Stewart encourages us to create not what the mind wants us to create, but to draw our inspiration from something deeper, something unknown. I may feel safe, but what learning, what growth, will I miss?
One woman in the workshop began to draw sharp, jagged teeth on one of her paintings, but when a thought judged it too harsh, she covered it up. Afterwards, she reported a feeling of deflation, of sadness in doing so. But through that experience, she got to see what happens when we let the mind get in the way of the creative flow. And I, like her, was beginning to learn something too. Paulus Berensohn, a dancer and ceramicist whose documentary was shown during the workshop puts it this way:
““In a very real sense, in this work, failure, if there is such a thing, can be viewed as a privilege. To make something successfully on the first try leaves you, in some cases, with little but a souvenir, whereas getting lost may afford you the opportunity to stop, reexamine and begin again and again with renewed insight and perhaps even personally developed solutions to move you on with strength… you may fall down, but they may also be enlivened by discoveries of your own and a sense of joy in a new ability opening up” (21).
What if I saw all of my art like this? What if my life unfolded as a blank canvas to be witnessed and experienced bit by bit, slowly piecing toward its whole, each wrong turn and supposed misstep included in this rich mosaic? If I let my thoughts alone control and evaluate each unfolding moment what remains unseen? What do I miss?
Something that is mentioned almost daily at Great Vow- in the meditation hall, around the breakfast table, at work circle- is that life can only be found in the present moment. When we get lost in thought, transported to some immaterial past or future, we become separated from this rich, unfolding present moment. In her essay entitled “Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” Jane Hirshfield gives a definition of concentration relevant to this specific idea of presence: “By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open…though not easily put into words, [it] is instantly recognizable” (Hirshfield, 3). Rather than staying within the mind, you open yourself up to the current moment and all that it holds. One of the reasons the Painting Experience, a secular, non-contemplative workshop, at our Zen Buddhist monastery, is that it has proven itself to be a method of opening up to this rich, vivid presence. By going into the process with complete creative freedom, by becoming aware of the mind’s standards and comparisons rather than being thoughtlessly controlled by them, this workshop helps us honor our own current mental, emotional, spiritual state in a very concrete, tangible way. Whatever impulse or feeling springs through the mind is immediately discernable on the paper in front of us when we choose to concentrate on and open up to presence. It can be scary at first, especially when the mind begins its commentary on what arises. When I first let my thoughts arise and pass as I made my ways through my paintings, rather than listening to their mercurial whims, I felt a bit of trepidation. I had previously relied on my thoughts as the sources of ideas, creative ability, and insights- what would be left when I entered a state of awareness both focused and open to what enfolds in the current moment?
Although brushing off the mind’s flitting, occlusive movements did lessen the ideas and creative possibilities available to me, it did not, to my surprise, stop their flow altogether. Rather than being able to make great imaginative leaps as to what the painting should include ten steps down the line or draw conclusions on how the finished painting should ultimately turn out, I was only given the very next stroke, the next color, the next figure. When I let my mind loop through its usual judgments and ideas and sat patiently with the painting, some voice always offered an idea- just one- that felt different in tone and intention than the multiple others given by my regular thinking mind. As Hirchfield states above, this particular state of concentration is not easy to put into words, but she is able to illuminate another aspect of this mysterious state: “true concentration appears- paradoxically at the moment willed effort drops away…in deep concentration, the self disappears” (Hirshfield, 4).
This step-by-step process, I realized, was not a limitation of my creativity but a clarification, a strengthening of my connection and faith to this source that exists beyond my willed effort and sense of self. It is this very act, this practice, of listening to that voice, regardless of its content, that was important and what I took away from the workshop. This voice is not only present when I have a palette in my hand and access to forty different paint colors. It is there when I am working on my writing, gently guiding me toward my next line. It is there at the breakfast table and in the garden, telling my to stop worrying about what will happen next, but to just eat, just dig. What will come, will come. And when it does, the voice of guidance will be there too, no criticizing or wishing otherwise.
We talk a lot about freedom in Buddhism, how to be free from suffering, how to be free from the mind. But the sort of freedom we practice, and the sort we experience while Painting with Stewart, is not an open-ended expansive freedom to do whatever we want. “The freedom I seek,” Paulus explains, “is not one that lets me do what I want to do but rather a freedom that equips me to be able to do what I need to do” (Berensohn, 21). It’s the freedom to exist fully in the present, to assent to what is out of our control, thus using our bit of power to flow into the greater whole, the one that tells us the next step, that is never separate from us, the one that is always waiting for us to try and fail and try and fail to find it, only to return to it again, knowing we can never really be lost.
Photos By Kisei