Sustenance: The Artist Way

“WHAT NEXT? My ‘future’ is the darkest thing in the world to me, but as there still remains a great deal for me to do, I suppose I ought rather to think of doing this than of my future, and leave the rest to THEE and the gods.”

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A book for all and none, Introduction

Many years ago, I was gifted a book called, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book is a guide with space for journal entries. It’s an excellent source to explore your inner world as an artist and develop creativity. At that time, I was a classroom teacher and feeling pulled away from my writing. I had become engulfed in worries and practical matters. The book became an antidote to my suffering.

The artist way is not easy especially in a society that values linear, rational ways of thinking and doing. There is a dearth of reliable opportunities for artists to make an honest living and few non-competitive spaces for artists to gather, make art, network and build community. For these reasons, many artists (like myself) neglect their craft for years to invest in a career that purportedly promises financial security.

The artist way is not for the faint of heart. At its core, it’s a philosophy, a way of living and meaning is derived from personal experience. This phenomenological stance requires a sensitive open mind, bravery, and commitment. It is very personal, very intimate. It’s a lot like the spiritual practice Zen.

“Zazen that leads to Self-realization is neither idle reverie nor vacant inaction but an intense inner struggle to gain control over the mind and then to use it, like a silent missile, to penetrate the barrier of the five senses and the discursive intellect (that is, the sixth sense). It demands energy, determination, and courage.” ~Phillip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been grappling with sustaining the artist way and questioning its worth, it’s validity. In response to this perennial self-interrogation, my stomach hurt and I got chronic indigestion. This should not have been a surprise. The stomach region relates to the third chakra, or the Solar Plexus. This is the center of power, self-confidence, motivation and purpose. The gut, as it were, is the body’s center for will power and agency. When we experience pain in the stomach region, we’re not free. We’re immobilized and weakened considerably. That is why in meditation, there is much attention paid to breathing and focusing on the contraction and expansion of the muscles in the abdomen.

“Mental power, or we might say, spiritual power, in the sense of this strong inward concentration, comes from tension in the tanden… The power is sustained by the stimulation coming from the tension in the respiratory muscles of the abdomen… so we may regard these muscles—or the tanden in general—as the root of spiritual power…When the respiratory muscles are set to work, mental—or spiritual—power is put into action. The effect of the activity is reported to the brain, which will then think of further orders, and cyclical chains of processes will occur… The process is the same with emotional expression: laughter, anger, and sorrow cannot  manifest themselves unless the abdominal muscles are convulsed.” ~Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy (pps 49-51, p. 83-84)

Like all spiritual and creative journeys, there is a process, an evolution of awareness and healing that must occur to sustain oneself. Often, we find ourselves entangled or stuck in one area in our life that demands our attention, such as my present condition. In paying attention to my stomach/ Solar Plexus/ tanden, and focusing on healing and liberating energy (which involves water, rest, healthy diet, exercise, meditation and contemplation activities), I’m regaining health and new insight into the process of self-realization.

The first insight, which is what I have just written, but essential to underscore: one must pay attention to the message of the body. The body is a feedback loop that relates to your state of mind and spiritual path. Second, there is circumstantial evidence of overlapping and compounding experiences that I believe are designed as guides or clues into which behaviors/choices/pathways lead to personal well-being and healing. Following these cues with absolute trust, is an essential part of awakening to Self-realization and Self-reliance.

In my case, I’ve become more cognizant of unaddressed or unhealed wounds from the past, including but not limited to the trauma from the sudden death of my life partner. Perhaps, in my case, with the focus generating an imbalance in my Solar Plexus—I am being asked to complete the healing of this region and move in the world with greater confidence and sense of purpose, to value that which all along has endured and inspired me and others, that which is my truth and my beauty, that which I have loved to do throughout my entire life in spite of many things lost—

And this would be the artist way.

I am stepping into a boat at night, sailing off into the darkness and finding light. This is how I might describe my current experience. And this metaphor is not unlike the dark night of the soul as described by Thomas Moore:

“Imagine that your dark mood, or the external source of your suffering, is a large, living container in which you are held captive. But this container is moving, getting somewhere, taking you to where you need to go. You may not like the situation you’re in, but it would help if you imagined it constructively. Maybe at this very minute you are on a night sea journey of your own...There may be some promise, the mere suggestion that life is going forward, even though you have no sense of where you’re headed. It’s a time of waiting and sit with these things and in due time let them be revealed for what they are.”

How Do We Return to Society?

In Zen training we start with The Search for Ox, the Ox being our true nature.

With diligent practice over time, we move through stages that lead to an enlightened return. Examining the evolution of Zen training is essential when we think about how a commitment to mindfulness meditation can positively influence society and encourage students to keep going.

If you’re interested in a thoughtful overview of the stages of Zen training (with a good portion of the book dedicated to teaching meditation technique) I recommend Katsuki Sekida’s book, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy. However, for the purpose of this reflection, I want to call your attention to the final three stages.

They are:

  • No Ox, No Man (A state of mind called, “nothing” or “the great death.” A thorough purification of consciousness, a vanishing of the ego and attachment to circumstances)
  • Returning to the Source (Going back to the start, the stage of the beginner but now with awakened consciousness. Seeing with new eyes and new hearing)
  • In Town with Helping Hands (Mingling with the world, caring of nothing other than the joy you bring to others. All antagonism is dissolved. Freedom, playfulness and positivity.)

I have found in my own practice and when listening to others on the path that it is natural to feel lost during periods of training, like when we experience The Great Death, or the Void.

According to Sekida, the stage No Ox, No Man is enlightenment when normal consciousness ceases. However, when there is a break in this state of mind (as it often occurs for most students) we are confronted with gnawing feelings of unease. We may ask ourselves: What do I do with this awareness? How will I ever integrate into normal society? Do I have to engage with society at all? What is the purpose?

When these questions arise, I have found it helpful to learn from teachers, many of whom contribute their experience and wisdom in literature. When a student is in a period of readiness, they are drawn to a teacher or a text… not by chance but as if the mere asking beckons a response. 

As we discover truth in literature, in the teachings, we can lean on this knowledge with expectation. We know more that if we keep moving forward, we can anticipate another change of being. This might feel like innocence and inspiration and later, much later— curiosity for being In Town with Helping Hands.

This notion that our practice, our calm, our bliss, a dedication to Self and resting in our true nature is ultimately leading us to a presence that brings joy to others is a very powerful knowing.

So, how do we progress from stage to stage?

Simply, it’s in your dedication to a daily practice, to sitting in meditation, to reading literature on the topic, talking and listening to teachers who demonstrate a commitment to the task, taking care of yourself and your instrument, that which is your body. It’s trusting your capacity to expand beyond what you can possibly imagine.

I realize there’s a certain surrender about this work but there is also foresight. There’s strength in this balance of knowing, learning and mystery. We are sitting at the intersection of life’s greatest koan, of effort and letting go.

As I progress from one stage to the next, I’m observing my life choices and how they are leading me to fulfill my purpose. I want to express courage and freedom, to help us see life’s beyond beyond. I want people to feel at home and loved and rested — especially those adults who have walked the road alone and there’s vulnerability and neediness.

That just feels beautiful and important to me.

Refuge and Crafting Space

I’m staying at another house. Moving from place to place seems to mark my current reality. In this wandering, my awareness of space increases and also my perception of home and refuge. Displacement elicits all kinds of emotion and there is insight into adapting and tolerating ambiguity. When you’re faced with a gap in life or just exploring, refuge becomes important. I am forever grateful for love that manifests into home space.

As I process this semi-nomadic experience, I keep one eye looking forward. I’m in the process of identifying my next home and in spite of longing for respite and sanctuary, I know that any house is temporary. It is like a body for a soul residing. Still… it’s nice to have a place to stay for a while to get the most out of life.

A space we inhabit reflects who we are, what we value and our purpose at the moment. Although we can’t reduce a person to his surroundings or physical characteristics, there is a significant relationship between our inner state of being and how that manifests on the outside. You can see a person’s health and well-being on his face and body just like you can see the state of mind and personality from the care and design of their dwelling.

(Perhaps all gross matter, like the spaces we inhabit, are artistic expressions of the soul)

On another note, by virtue of borrowing other people’s spaces, I’ve taken to receiving the gifts of my surroundings. Such as a bottle of wine or the books that lie around. Each gift, I crack open like a fortune cookie.

Last night I stumbled across a book in my friend’s library by Swami Sivananda. He writes:

“You create your destiny, your character, your future through your thoughts and deeds. There is no end of your experiences here and hereafter. You will continue to live and come back and be born again on this earth. Try to attain perfection and reach that state where there is no more birth, no more death, and no more disease, sorrow, tribulation or suffering… Through knowledge of the imperishable obtain perfect peace, eternal bliss, everlasting joy and immortality.”

This quote is a timely gift indeed!

Life is a creation of Self through thought and deeds. Freedom is knowing that there is no end to experience, that we keep coming back to perfect our journey. Perhaps we are all moving together like one big band of vibrating light energy, from suffering to happiness, from sorrow and disease to everlasting joy and immortality.

Perhaps in my one lonely search for home, I am being reunited with a reflection of my soul as much as it is a refuge for my body.

Perhaps in the crafting and the sculpting of it there is a unique gift, an experience to inhabit and share in the precious moments of time.