Dancing with your Dragon

This dragon hoards the treasure inside of me. My fears, the things that make me righteously angry, the negativity I project onto others - these become the dragon that stands between me and my enlightenment.

In mythology East to West, the dragon is an archetype of the most unreasonable and formidable foe. Dragon scales are impermeable except for … one weakness. Sometimes the hero needs close observation and a clear mind to see the one gap in a dragon’s armor. Other times the dragon’s scales have developed as protection against the blows of life. Once I lay down my defenses and show kindness, the dragon can remove the burden of their frightening suit of armor and be light and free. They don’t scare anyone anymore. Sometimes we befriend the dragon, sometimes we fool it long enough to get the treasure, sometimes it needs to be slayed.

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These are some of my reflections as I work on this dragon from my recent painting. He guards the pearl of wisdom and dances around Vajrasattva, bodhisattva of purification in Tibetan Buddhism.

How do you dance with your dragon?

Love or Fear?

It hit me in the heart like an arrow of pure truth.

“There are two ways to master an art - through love or through fear.”

A dear friend shared this quote with me on a hike to the Buddha Rocks at Shoshoni. So many years I had fear motivating my work. On a subtle level, I related to my teacher with inferiority and my peers with hostility. My learning process was sabotaged by my inner critic. It was hard to be with myself creatively.

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And now, as the dust has cleared from this exploded illusion, the open space is full of love. How to go about developing my work with love? Marinate in love and gratitude for my life and creative opportunities each morning. Dedicate the merit of my work to the benefit of others. Shake off negative states of mind and see them as passing storms. Release my grip on how things should be and give them space to grow and be as they are.

How do you do your work with love?

Grow with the Flow

Usually I don't get to decide what I'm painting. At least not all of it. A piece starts with an inspiration, images, feelings. Add to that time when I'm open and willing to work on it. Then in this luscious place, creativity takes root.

If I'm too stuck on things being a certain way, this can be a creative block. So, time to let go and grow with the flow.

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It's a lot like our garden. Some veggies we planted did well, others struggled. And then there were the surprise guests! Carrots and kale, survivors just waiting for the right conditions to pop up. I could never have predicted what our harvest would be like.

The surprises are the best part. What has surprised you in your creative life?

Darkness in Perspective

Am I afraid of the dark? Or am I limited in my perspective?

The painting I am working on now is a Cosmic Green Tara. She is in the vastness of outer space, which appears to our eyes as a dark color.

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The first stages of painting the background seemed like smoke in the darkness. I was nervous and resistant as this was the first time I had painted outer space. The deeper I worked into the painting, the more it developed into something new, beautiful and captivating.

The unknown, the things we can't see clearly, the things we don't have a context for yet - these often appear as darkness and we may feel an aversion to them. The darkness has more to do with our point of view and what is familiar to us. How often my world changes when I get to know someone or something better.

 

Passing Through

Like Meg from the movie Wrinkle in Time, my first reaction to life is often "no."

When I was in art school, we visited the artist Laura Mosquera in her Chicago studio. Check out her amazing work here. I remember being unable to appreciate her paintings because of the critical state of my mind.

For me, the journey of making art is learning to move through negative reactions to stay focused on my work. I have learned that my initial "no" response doesn't have to color what I think and do. It is like a hallway I walk through to enter the grand ballroom of my creativity and growth.

The Buddhist deity Vajrasattva embodies the energy of purification, helping us to be free of our negativity and karma. I have always felt a dancing rhythm in his posture. He holds the vajra, symbolic of diamond-like clarity and focus. In meditation and life, gazing at a deity like Vajrasattva is a powerful way to stay focused on our highest aspirations for our own enlightenment.

Mini meditation: Take a moment right now to breathe and relax in yourself. Release any negativity or heaviness, and allow your heart to open.

Vajrasattva drawing by Faith Stone with spray paint stencils by Gayatri

Vajrasattva drawing by Faith Stone with spray paint stencils by Gayatri

Just a Poem

Just sharing a poem today that is speaking to me in my life:

Seasons in the Mind by Kabir

There are seasons in the mind,
great currents and winds move there,

the true yogi ties a rein to them; a power plant
she becomes.

Winter, spring, summer, fall: these are pages
in a book the advanced can turn to,
and impart.

Order is a great benefit to the seeker,
otherwise living in one's own house can become as
walking through a marketplace

where all the merchants keep shouting,
"You owe me."

That does not sound like
much fun

and who could accomplish anything
in all that
noise.

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Epic in Increments

When I was new to making art regularly, a good friend asked me if I would make large paintings of my subjects. I had been making 12" x 16" paintings and I told her it felt like all I could handle at the time!

I had to get a handle on what I could handle, and then scale up from there.

Scaling up happens in a sweet spot somewhere between what I can handle and what is completely beyond me. Like the Buddha's insight  about the Middle Way listening to the musician on the river: "if you tighten the string too much it will break, if it is too loose it will make no sound."  

I have a tendency to want the next level of epic growth RIGHT NOW! Damnit!  Forcing things can do more harm than good, breaking the string. I am learning that my growth feels more like a slow cooker.

Scaling up is also contagious. Hanging out with people who are bigger than I am in the areas I wish to expand. Maybe they'll give me a ride in their airplane...

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I'm scaling up with a new painting: taking things larger, trying a few new techniques that are stabilized by methods I have been working on. Scaling up with a good foundation.

How do you scale up?

Spring Fever

Someone who loves me told me once that I always have a hard time in the spring. This gives me comfort and perspective when I get restless and think I need to make major life changes. My body can feel discombobulated with the change of the seasons. We are part of nature, and this major phase of change in the natural world affects us deeply.

In creative life, there are cycles as well. Wintertime is a more internal, like germinating the seed. Summer is outward and expansive, sharing the fruits of our work with others. The seasons are especially significant in my husband's pottery work: times for turning pots, glazing, firing and culminating in events for sales and community.

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Since I enjoy a number of creative disciplines - painting, drawing, music, yoga, cooking – it helps to have something I’m working toward like, dare I say it, a clear deadline. A set time to share and connect with other people: a concert for music, a commission for a painting, a workshop for yoga, a meal for cooking.

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There was a time when I put myself down or saw it as a shortcoming that I wasn’t always painting, or playing cello everyday, etc. The restlessness is often unused creative energy. Over time, I learned about myself that I work in projects. Each day is a chance to invest in part of my creative life. Everyone is unique in the way they work.

How are you growing your creative life this spring?

You're not Alone

One of the best parts of starting a new painting is putting my team together. Assembling my resources, calling in the troops.

I really never do it alone.

And when I thought I had to do it alone in order to be authentic/original/creative – I was hardly doing it and tying myself up in knots in the fruitless process.

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To create the team behind a new piece, I gather references, usually from more accomplished artists than myself. On the easel this week, Faith Stone’s book Drawing Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is on the left and Robert Beer’s Buddhist Art Coloring Book 2 on the right.

I hope some of their grace will rub off on me. And I hope my work will express my gratitude as we all reach for a new level.

Who’s on your team?

We all Made It

Through the holidays! Or at least to the home stretch. This is cause for celebration.

Isn’t it ironic that all of this merriment and downtime can leave us feeling a little off? Or sometimes like a train wreck. I can’t be the only one.

The holidays are no small occurrence. When I connected with my sangha this week, it was comforting to see that I’m not the only person welling up with things that need transcending. Community always helps me get perspective.

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I’m getting back to painting today. Over time, I have come to understand that my work is an essential part of staying in balance. Deep inside I start to crave it, like traction for a footstep to keep moving forward.

Cheers to digging in heels and growing! Cheers to your New Year!

Grateful for the Crux

“What if this is the crux?” I asked myself as Deepak and I went through our morning workout. Again and again I asked just a little more of myself.

The crux is the hardest part of the rock-climbing route, or anything that we do. It is often the point of no return. Once you make it through the crux, the end is in sight. And there could be more than one.

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Sometimes I am in the crux all day long.

In working, in playing, in loving, in living – if we are really doing it, we will come up to the crux.

The crux brings me face to face with my perceived limits. But I take a break - take a breath - and a solution is here. Usually it is an inner solution of clarity and release, a subtle shift.

This is exactly the process for a breakthrough. And it all started by getting to the crux.

Buddha's Moving In

“It’s not personal” – I tell myself this all the time. “It’s not about me, it’s about something bigger.” Painting a Buddha or deity is not a personal endeavor – it’s universal.

When we meditate, we bring our awareness to the subtle inner work of being present and open to a flow of higher energy. It is a way of developing ourselves so that we can truly be of service to others.

It is the same thing with spiritual art, whichever side you are on – making or viewing. My art mentor Faith Stone talks about this process:

“Your goal is to try to stay out of the way and let the Buddha be expressed - not you. Essentially you are creating an environment for the Bodhisattva (enlightened being) or Buddha to reside or take form.”

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When you bring a piece of sacred art into your home, the deity or higher energy is moving in! As a meditator, I see the sacred art throughout my home as a reminder of the practice I did that morning and take a moment to reconnect to this higher awareness.

In sacred art class at Eldorado Ashram, we finish a painting session with this dedication prayer offering up the merit of our actions to the liberation of all beings. This part of class always feels like a celebration and release - because it’s not about me.

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Talent, Skill & Effort

Sometimes I only have a 30% chance of making art, doing yoga or something else productive. The things I want to do be the person I want to be. The trick of it is to convert the 30% inspiration into 100% action.

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Talent and inspiration are not the essence of making art. They are the initial impulse, sometimes a random bonus. The sprinkles on the cupcake.

“The separation of talent and skill is one of the greatest misunderstood concepts for people who are trying to excel, who have dreams, who want to do things. Talent you have naturally. Skill is ONLY developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.”

- Will Smith

Angela Duckworth quoted Will Smith in her book Grit, where she explores the science and psychology of high achievers. She comments:

 “With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive.”

This reminded me of Swami Rudrananda’s meditation teaching:

“Effort over time equals growth.”

How we relate to and harness our effort matters so much more than pure talent.

Temporary Struggle

I worked on a painting yesterday and it was a very long two hours of effort. For most of that time, I wasn’t thrilled with what I saw on the canvas but I kept working at it to work things out. At the end, I got some space from the painting and the rocks came into view. Ahhh.

The other day I was looking at one of my favorite paintings and remembering the challenge of working through the details. I spent 4+ hours on Kelly’s face – a two-inch square area. I’m pretty sure I cried that afternoon.

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But all that struggle is gone now. In its place is a beautiful painting. I love looking at it every day and continue to see something new. And I feel so lucky that I was part of bringing this art into being.

 

Chill with the Chaos

Things usually look like hell for a large part of the painting process. Especially portraits - everyone looks old and blotchy. Not suitable for public viewing. A bystander might nod and hum in sympathy that I am working so hard at something so crappy.

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I heard a great quote - "if you are going through hell, keep going." I can really relate this to my spiritual growth and to the process of making art. One of my art and meditation friends said that she will put at least one mark on her painting everyday.

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The "in-between" phase of the process is actually where all the magic is setting in. Things feel unfamiliar because our brains are stretching and new neural pathways are forming. It is a journey into pure possibility and being a vehicle for creative energy.

Interestingly, I have made paintings more by rote, where the process is clear and the in-between wasn't a challenge. And these paintings lacked the magic and refinement. They almost felt like cartoons of a painting.

The more time I spend in the in-between, the more comfortable and relaxed I am navigating this new terrain.

What do you do in-between?

 

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Making art is not easy

A common misconception is that the experience of making art should feel like experiencing a finished work of art - refinement, release, beauty, revelation. Actually, it is challenging to do creative work and bring something into the world that wasn't here before.

It was comforting to hear Malcolm Gladwell's consideration of artistic refinement in his podcast last year (Listen here: http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/07-hallelujah). He talks about Cezanne working on the same subject repeatedly for greater refinement, often with a lot of dissatisfaction propelling the process. Gladwell also explores how a piece - the song Hallelujah - was brought into its fullness by a number of artists working together over decades. Art takes time!

Working at the dining room table at Cambridge Woodfired Pottery.  

Working at the dining room table at Cambridge Woodfired Pottery.  

One of the primary dead-ends to being creative is waiting until I feel like making art. I find that I have to dive into the work itself and make the act of working the reason to be there. This relates to the practice of yoga described in the Bhagavad Gita:

"To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction."

The real "work" of art, and the work of growing, involves going into the unknown. For me, it feels more like bushwhacking through the wilderness of my resistance and fear, and less like receiving sprinkles of easy inspiration and pixie dust ;)

What does the process feel like for you?

A work of lifestyle

As we prepare to move back to Colorado, Kelly is wrapping up his apprenticeship with Mark Skudlarek at Cambridge Pottery. It has been amazing to live on Tranquil Lane (not kidding) and experience the seasons of life in the pottery.

Mark is a production potter, which means that he makes functional pieces for daily life. His showroom includes: mugs, plates, lamps, casseroles, his famous 'chicken-bricks,' beer steins, planters, large-scale vessels, treasure boxes for your dresser...

Large vessels, a mug, and the kiln in the background - all by Mark

Large vessels, a mug, and the kiln in the background - all by Mark

Speaking of one of his pottery mentors, Warren McKenzie, Mark articulates that the 'work-of-art' in pottery is the entire lifestyle, facility and process:

  • Making clay and glazes from raw materials
  • Chopping and stacking wood for home and kiln
  • Turning pots (as Mark likes to say)
  • The wood firing, a 5-day process that happens twice a year producing a few thousand pots.
  • Home, family and community who gather around the pottery and its events

This process is called the production cycle and flows with the seasons, culminating in a tour in fall and spring. When someone takes home a piece of pottery, it becomes part of their life and they continue this creative process.

It has felt natural to practice meditation as we have lived with Mark in his artisan lifestyle for this year. Many days, I would bring my easel into the workshop and paint alongside the potters.

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We leave Tranquil Lane with a bittersweet sigh and a sense of gratitude as we say farewell for now to Mark and the boys. We will take methods and inspiration for pottery, life and art with us into our next chapter.

Check out Mark's work at www.cambridgepottery.com

Learning what you are not

I started painting in high school and identified strongly as a portrait painter, NOT a landscape painter. I was serious about this, damnit! I would put in my time on the background of the painting like eating my vegetables so I could skip to dessert - the portrait. This preference was so strong that it often blocked me from working on a painting.

Since making art more consistently, I have discovered:

  1. I actually enjoy painting landscapes
  2. One is not better than the other. Or as Paul Reps said, "each is best.

As usual, the next step involved getting out of my own way!

I love my little painting, Bromance, and how it toes the line of landscape and portrait:

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Ganesh and Writer's Block

What does it take to move through blocks in your creative projects? In yourself?

Ganesh writing Mahabharata (2014)

Ganesh writing Mahabharata (2014)

The image of Ganesh holding his tusk will always stir my soul. He broke it off during a non-stop writing project, to keep his commitment to write even when his pen broke. Ganesh and the sage Vyasa had a deal - as long as Vyas told his story, Ganesh would transcribe. This story is told in the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic.

This was one of the first paintings I made while living at Shoshoni Yoga Ashram. It was incredible how many creative blocks - self-doubt, criticism, fear - showed up during the process! As the lord of obstacles, Ganesh embodies the energy of moving around and through blocks. A key thing here is MOVING - keep momentum in any form. In this and many of my paintings, there is flowing water in the background to indicate creative flow.

I heard recently that when Einstein had a block in his scientific work, he would stop and play the violin. This strategy allowed him to create a flow in another outlet and then infuse it into his work.

As a meditator, I find that blocks in my work are related to a block in myself. I am so lucky for my meditation training at Shoshoni that I know how to look within, take a conscious breath, and release the tensions in me that block my flow.

How do you flow through your creative blocks?

 

Are you creating or consuming?

Were you born and raised in consumer culture? Me too. It feels like  I have to carve my creative self out of a dense consumer shell. Sometimes my desire to have a milkshake and be a couch potato is so strong!

For me, creativity is stepping up to my life. It is not a one-time job. Each new day craves creative effort. I find that an uphill feeling is the norm, and a downhill ride is a treat! And so is the occasional milkshake ;)

Sometimes being creative is expansive, easy and revelatory, other times it is like an ox plowing the field – slow methodical digging that does not appear to end. But it does, and then you have a breakthrough!

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So many things we do can be creative:

  • Listening and being present with someone
  • Making food and house cleaning
  • Running a business and working with focus
  • Exercise
  • Relationships and parenting
  • And last but not least, MAKING ART!

What do you do to be creative?