Try being fully present in the moment. Zen isn’t about making lists or setting a timer. It’s about doing what’s needed in the moment and not worrying about how long it takes you or how many things you can get done. Trust yourself; trust in the process. The world will turn even if you don’t get a million things done.
There’s an old zen saying, “chop wood, carry water.” Unlike many koans, this wise saying it’s not difficult to unravel. It means do what’s needed. It may be mundane but it needs to be done. Do what you’re doing; don’t worry about what hasn’t been done yet. This is reflected in Jesus saying,” Leave tomorrow for tomorrow; think about today instead.”
One way of thinking about Zen is that it’s a matter of focus. Give your complete attention to what you are doing. There are a couple of books entitled “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Zen and the Art of Archery.” What this means is you can apply Zen to every task you are doing. And that is actually a form of meditation. It’s very powerful. You let yourself be a tool in the task you are doing. One method of this meditation is called Shodo or Japanese zen calligraphy. In this technique you concentrate on the meaning of the word you are doing and not on your penmanship. In this way the very shape of the brushstrokes conveys the meaning. You are an extension of the brush and the energy of the intention is what is completing the action. In this way you don’t become distracted buy other things. You are fully present in the creation of your calligraphy. This method has also been used by feudal Samurai and other Japanese artisans such as flower arranging. This is because this technique can be applied in everyday life. Using it to do calligraphy it’s like practicing for the rest of your life. Many people think that meditation is a kind of recharging of your battery or resetting your hard drive. But really in this technique it is practice for how you can be all throughout the day. Try using this technique with whatever mundane tasks you’re doing. If it’s washing the dishes, wash the dish that is in front of you and in your hands until it is completely washed. Pay attention to it; did you get all the parts inside and out? Is it free of dirt? Then you rince it and set it in the drying rack. You pick up the next dish and give it your complete attention. Soon your dishes will be clean. There’s no need to set a timer. If one of your children need your attention in the middle of this task then you can give your attention to what is most important.
I’ve been working on this for a few days and I think it’s getting close. Either that or I’m going to start over lol. I wanted to do a big kali Night painting on watercolor paper with watercolors. I’ve been doing them small in ink on a really absorbant paper from the Himalayas, which is culturally poetic, but I wanted to see what I could do with a medium I have more experience with after learning on a less forgiving media. Turns out I face many of the same difficulties.
Having said that, it is nice to really wade into watercolors again. There’s a much more alchemical feel to them, because the colors interact with each other differently. With inks they’re all just basically dyes. At least the ones I was using, anyway.
I always fall sort. I fail myself, my expectations, and my family. I will never not fail. Not every time. Just occasionally. It’s unpredictable. It is very difficult to accept. Yet I am enough. I try my best. I will fall short. It will have to be enough. That’s why we have family; to carry each other when by ourselves we fall. It is my shortcomings that make me need others, and my shortcomings that make me feel unworthy of others.
Here is a large scale sumi painting of Azul the Blue Dragon. Azul is the enlightened master who teaches Yendor to be a wizard in “The Song of Yendor.” I’m really happy with the way it came out. There is so much energy in this painting.
I have been wanting to paint a large scale sumi painting. For me this means about 20×30 inches. I know there are much larger paintings, but I have been doing 5×7 ones. The handmade paper I get comes in 20×30 & I’ve been cutting down to make folios for my sketchbook. You use a whole different set of muscles when you work larger scale. This is my first one. It’s a tree on the property of my apartment complex and I think it lends itself nicely to the project. I did a sketch first because the materials can be costly working large, if you have to throw away a bunch of mistakes. I don’t normally make preliminary sketches, primarily because I’m so lazy, but in this instance I wanted to get a feel for for how things might play out. It was helpful for composition and knowing which brushes would be useful and other procedural processes.
Legitimate problems with too much preliminary work is that it can reduce the improvisational surprises that can keep your work lively. Also, if your sketch comes out better than your actual work, it can be a drag, because usually it’s done with cheap paper and materials. But, many people do sketches of different angles, compositions, color comps, and really like to lock down all the details before rendering the final piece. I tend to work out a lot of that with my reference photos. I generally take all my own references, and since the advent of digital photography, there’s no reason not to experiment at this level. It’s important to get lighting, angles and composition just right in reference photos so your final piece has as much worked out in advance as possible. This way, my drawing can be loose on the final and keep as much energy as possible. There’s a saying that if you’re not enjoying it, you audience won’t enjoy it. If you’re not surprised, and interested by your work, your audience won’t be either.
The sumi style requires painting without an under drawing on your paper, so that’s why doing a separate preliminary painting can be helpful.
I may work on the final more. I had to stop because my children woke up from their naps. One of the challenges was getting a light touch on the delicate foliage using ink on absorbant paper, so there is a light look that may be too light. Also, working large requires photographing the piece rather than scanning it.
Here is my 1st attempt at a traditional sumi Dragon. I’ve done sumi Dragons before, but those were done in a kind of one stroke method that I thought best utilized the energy channeling zen technique of Hitsuzendō. When I first started translating Hitsuzendō from calligraphy to painting, I hadn’t realized the breadth of the sumi style. I was trying to do calligraphy in picture form. I still really like the way that kind of image comes out, but I’m trying to to be more true to the sumi heritage while also learning to apply it to my more traditionally Western style of painting. That is a total contradiction I know, but luckily Taoism and tàijítú allow for, and indeed rely on contradictions.
This image is really tiny; and I realized I’d like to do this kind of thing on a large scale, so I have to figure out how to make that happen. The problem with that is, this kind of technique doesn’t lend itself to corrections, and materials can be expensive on a large scale, so I’m going to need some practice.
I made this piece for my son, Gabriel, who is obsessed with the moon. Originally, I had planned on making it more detailed, but I really like the energy of this direct and simple execution. I am experimenting with this zen style of painting. The idea of the style is to empty your mind and let the energy of your spirit flow into the painting. When executing a Kanji calligraphy, the calligrapher would concentrate on the word or phrase and Chanel the energy of that into the calligraphy. When I do Sanskrit Calligraphy that’s what I do. It’s kind of a learning curve. I get a small brush and practice the word over and over until I’m comfortable with it. Even if it’s a word I know really well. Then I prepare several sheets of paper and execute the word full size several times. Sometimes I do several full size practices 1st, but if I have enough good paper, I just go for it, because sometimes the best one is what you thought was a practice one, and if you did it on practice paper, you’re screwed. At the end of the session, I’m exhausted and maybe have one or two good pieces. Maybe none came out good enough. It’s hard to tell because the aesthetic is different from traditional calligraphy. It has to have a vibe to it. It should also be relatively centered on the page and not have any glaring mistakes or drips.
A scene involving multiple subjects and composition and thought about meaning, mood, color, brushes, inks, requires too much mental activity to do it all in advance and then just execute a plan, like a well rehearsed dance. Spontaneity is a big part of of these pieces. It’s not Bach, it’s the blues. Pieces like the sumi moons on blue paper, are fairly spontaneous; I’ve painted similar scenes enough to not have to plan it out too much to get the right feel. Still the process of emptying my mind is the new element that has to fit into the puzzle. It’s difficult to do it for a prolonged period of time.
For this piece, I thought I would start with this simple moon/sky. First I did it in black; a series of enso circles to define the moon and the surrounding sky, then broader with water, to create a wash. Then back in with gold for the moon and a halo, and then blue violet for the sky, using the same technique. For each stroke, I empty my mind, breath out, breath in and then execute the stroke on the exhale, driving the energy through my body and down my arm and into the painting with each stroke. Then I had planned to go back and add detail to the moon, perhaps a ground beneath, maybe the ocean. Maybe add clouds, or stars. However, I was struck by the energy in the underpainting, and I thought further detail would weaken what seemed to me to be a strong piece. It’s for my son anyway, and not really for sale, so it doesn’t matter if it’s polished or not. He’s two years old. Almost three. But it was a real learning experience. To reset after each stroke, concentrate on what I am doing and not what I did or what I am going to do. This is the goal of this kind of technique. It’s a meditation practice for monks. Hopefully, I can keep this lesson learned.
I see a lot of articles about “being present,” “be in the moment,” and things of this nature. Some say that that is all there is to enlightenment. Entire books are written on mindfullnes. As a person who has spent a lot of my life daydreaming… I mean “writing fiction,” uh… anyway, I’ve struggled with this concept. Yoda says that Luke “Never is his mind on where he is, what he is doing.” The Tao espouses this concept, as does the Dharma, and Krishna. Even Western religion calls for this kind of behavior as when Jesus says to be like children. And again when He says how we should be like the lilies of the field, (that Jesus and his references to mortality with “lilies”) and the birds of the air who neither reap nor sow, but are taken care of by their father in heavan. This is telling us to “Leave tomorrow for tomorrow and worry about today instead” (which he also says in his hit musical: “Jesus Christ Superstar”.)
But what does all this mean? Are we supposed to not think about the future? Do we discount the lessons of our past? Are we to be automotons? I think we are not supposed to be slaves to our thought processes. In the Bhagavad Gita we are told of the blind King Dhritarashtra, who is the ego, who is the regent, and when the rightful king comes to claim the throne, Dhritarashtra refuses to relinquish the throne. Our brain is a tool like our eyes or our arms, but we are not our bodies. We are more than our arms, more than our eyes, and we are more than our brains as well.
When a dancer is best, it is when she is not thinking about the next move, but when she is so practiced, that she does not have to think about it. Artists often talk about when they are so involved in the creative process, that time seems to have flown by. This is known as Aphrodite time, named for the Goddess of love, as opposed to normal time, named for Chronos, the Titan that consumed the gods, (his children) only to be saved by Zues (thus freeing them from time and giving them immortality.
I read instructions that tell me to pay attention to my breathing. Listen to my heart beating. The term Buddha means, “the awoken one.” and so being awake means being aware. Being aware of what’s going on that normal people are asleep to. Yet it is impossible to concentrate on all my senses at once. To pay attention to my heart beating and my breathing and the people talking to me, and feel the breeze and all that.
It is impossible to silence my mind as well. There is no way for me to do all these things. I am not a buddha.
The problem, as I see it, is that these instructions to be in the moment lack one key ingredient. Motivation. Why be in the moment? Because it leads to enlightenment? What is that? Being aware? I try and I just don’t seem to get it.
Until last night.
The reason to be in the moment is this:
Because to be awake to what is happening is FUCKING AWESOME!
This realization makes even a mundane trip to the market thrilling. I don’t have to simultaneously be aware of my breathing and seeing what’s on sale. I can seemlessly move from one to the other. To realize that every moment is brand new and the present is right now, and the eternal present is all there is. Even if I’ve done something a million times before, It’s still new in this moment. Think about that dancer. In order to not have to think about her dance, she had to practice the dance a million times to perform it flawlessly.
When you realize each moment, each experience is brand new, life is an adventure. People pay huge sums of money to be thrilled by adventure: they go skydiving, they go on safari, they go to exotic locals. There is nothing wrong with doing these things, but every second of everyday is unique, whether you are stuck in traffic, being chewed out by your boss, screwing up the courage to ask out that girl in accounting, or going to bed for the night.
I fall back into being humdrum, getting frustrated, and these things. life goes on, but once having realized the adventure that is each moment, I can re-enter that sensibility at any time. There is a Buddhist saying: “Chop wood, carry water.” It means to do what is needed in the moment. But it also means that that is the meditation. That is what to be awake to; not some spiritual ethereal concept, but the concrete reality of living life. I have long said that just going to church for an hour once a week is not enough, that each action we take is an act of worship, whether we realize it or not. If we chase money and are assholes all week long, that’s what we worship, that’s what we are dedicating our lives to, not just something we do for an hour. Of course, going to church can center us, give us our direction and if we fall short much of the time, we can still aspire to be more like we want. Living life in the moment, realizing the adventure can help us to feel less stuck, help us to be the kind of person we want to be in the moment.
If we fall into the rut of feeling like there’s nothing new, and we’ve done everything a million times, we rob ourselves of the thrill of being in the moment. Once we experience this thrill, we can motivate ourselves to do new things, and accept things as they are. There is a place for both of these in our lives.
Welcome to the adventure.
I write alot about love as a force we can use to effect positive change around us, but I rarely talk about the need to charge ourselves with love so we can live in its abundance and share that positive energy with our fellows.
Sometimes this can be easy; if our lives are going the way we want, then connecting to a feeling of love takes little effort. If, however; we are at odds with what’s happening in our lives, it may seem like love isn’t there to connect to. I have always been told that God loves me and is always there for me. This is hard not to take as an empty platitude when you don’t know how you’re going to provide for your family, whether there will be enough to pay the rent, buy food, etc… It’s hard if you are fighting with family members or people at work. We all know struggle; it defines the human experience.
With 2 small children, it can be a challenge to find some “me” time. I feel guilty telling my wife I need to do something for myself. We both work hard and spend all our spare time taking care of our children and trying to keep up with the housework. The other day I expressed my desire to work on an art project. My wife insisted I take the time to do it. Many of our arguments are the opposite of normal arguments with us each advocating for the other to do the thing they want.
My newest bent on creating art is to attempt to do them all like zen calligraphy. Zen Calligraphy is a process where the Calligrapher becomes the instrument of what is called “Chi” in Chinese. In Japanese it’s called “ki”, in Korean it’s called “Qi”. Seeing as how none of these languages use the alphabet we use, I consider the word to be basically the same in these languages. In Sanskrit the concept is known as prana. These words all mean “life force” or energy. The process involves being in a meditative state during the execution of the project. Zen masters say the process is the same whether one is doing calligraphy, flower arranging, or swordfighting.
When the children are screaming and I leave my wife in the next room to deal while I guiltily go to a quiet room to do art, it is difficult for me to put myself in this state. It is a state of love. how can I put myself in a state of love, which is giving and caring, and selfishly go to create art?
I realized that I was missing the love that was there. My children were screaming because they love me and want me near them. My wife gave me the time to work on my project because she loves me. It was the love charge I was needing that was there all along. Part of love is being able to accept it.
We see ourselves as limited, finite beings. We’re only human. We’re fragile. While on some levels, these things are true, and we need to treat each other with care, that is only part of the story. The other part is that we spiritual, luminous beings. We are limitless energy. We are conduits of the most powerful force in the universe: love. We are, in fact comprised entirely of love. We can learn to focus this miraculous energy, and heal ourselves and each other.
You don’t have to quit your job & become a monk to harness this power. It is your birthright. There are simple steps that you already know how to do that can lead you in the right direction. Smile. This sends the people who receive your smile positive energy. They can probably use it. Everyone has a struggle they are going through, and a little encouragement can go along way. Once you feel comfortable with this, you can expand your methods. Smile at strangers. Don’t expect anything in return. If they smile back, that’s great, if not, that’s ok too. If you get caught up in whether or not you’re getting reciprocation, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, which is the opposite of positive energy. Nobody bats 1000. That means nobody is successful 100% of the time.
Another method of conveying positive energy is the hug. However, hugs are only for people you are close enough to feel comfortable with. Forcing a hug on a stranger is not helpful and could be a crime! But that energy can be sent without physical contact. The wholesome, positive encouragement you convey in a hug can be sent psychically. You don’t have to be a jedi to transmit positive energy to people. Don’t exhaust yourself, and don’t be obsessive. Don’t feel bad if you don’t get immediate results. When you find out someone is sick, send them positive vibes. You can focus your energy by vocalizing what you’re doing. You can do it silently. Just say to yourself, “I’m sending so & so positive, healing energy.”
Don’t ever focus your energy in a negative way. Don’t send energy to hurt someone you’re mad at. If you can, send people you’re mad at a blessing. Even if you can’t do it while you’re angry, do it later. We all get angry, and we all act on anger in ways we regret. Don’t chanel your energy in a negative way. It can become a habit, and will be hard to come back from. Don’t let simple mistakes ruin this process for you. If you do something negative, just put it behind you and stick to the positive. Always take responsibility for your actions.
Also, it should go without saying that while sending healing vibes is an honorable way to learn to focus spiritual energy, always seek professional medical help for illnesses or injuries. Do not under any circumstances think that the methods described above can replace or substitute a doctor’s attention.
Fill your life with positive love & actions. Be love. That’s what you are.