I walk through my shadow in search of a moment.
When I carve wood, I often experience the wood as a person who is speaking to me. I listen to it, in a kind of "I-Thou" relationship. As the philosopher Martin Buber explains, there is an intimacy between ourselves and the things around us; in my case, between me and the wood. Recently, I read that the world-renowned potter Margaret Tafoya, from Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico, talked to her clay, called it "Mother Clay," and prayed to it before she shaped it into pots. It was easy for me to understand because of the way I work with the wood. Tewa, the language of Santa Clara, uses the same word, nung, to mean both people and clay. As potters work the clay, the pot and the person are intimately connected. The shape that becomes the pot embodies the spirit of both.
My friend, artist Lenore Tawney, was born in 1907. She is known for her collages and her weaving. Lenore is so youthful that I frequently forget her age, and we often chat as old friends about things of interest to us as contemporaries. I went to visit her recently and asked her about her spiritual connection to art. As I walk into her loft, which is both her studio and home, she tells me that a visitor recently told her that walking into her space is like walking into a prayer. The same visitor asked her if she strove for beauty in her work. "No," she said. "I strive for truth. It's all in my heart and my artmaking process. The artwork comes out like a great river." She chants mantras (prayers) all the time, all devoted to the Great Mother. One mantra is Ham Sa, "I am that, that is God." Another, her favorite, is Om Namah Shivah, which she translates as "I bow to the god within me."
Swami Chidvilsananda, the Siddha Yoga master, instructs us to honor ourselves with the same mantra. She translates Om Namah Shivaya a little differently, as "I honor the great primordial self within myself, awakening the conscious self to the vast eternal inner self." There is an interesting parallel here to talking to "Mother Clay."
Lenore was interested in the spiritual for as long as she can remember. She loved to go to vespers with her mother when she was little. Her first weaving was called "St. Francis and the Bird" and was dedicated to her father. She says that it was the beginning of her spiritual journey with art, her pilgrimage with it. It is as a pilgrim that Lenore sees herself on her journey in pursuit of truth. She recites the mantras on the route to find her artwork that "comes out like a great river."
The route in a pilgrimage is often rocky with many closed doors along the way. In my pilgrimage toward understanding, I grapple with one closed door after another. But even when I finally unlock these doors, I often do not find much there immediately. Marcel Proust referred to memory as coming "like a rope let down from heaven." Memory and experience exist like ghost following you silently around without visible history. Reflecting on this, I began to ask myself, How could we in a workshop setting, or alone in our studios, go deeper in our exploration? How could we work more closely with the raw subject of ourselves? How could we find that primitive material buried there, our own internal rivers, that can help us change ourselves and our artwork?
Psychologist James Vargiu sees the connection between the creative and the meditative -- reflective meditation, receptive meditation, contemplation, and discrimination -- are quite parallel in nature to the stages of the creative process. Thus meditators can be seen as being creative workers and creative thinkers can be seen as practicing a definite kind of meditation. Such strong similarities between meditation and creative activity suggest that we are in fact dealing with two approaches to the same path of human development. These approaches although starting from very different points of departure, are in fact dealing with two approaches to the same path. toward the same goal: the development of a new mode of awareness and inner activity."
Tibetan Buddhism fosters a type of meditation called "sitting practice." It's a very simple activity. You sit and sit and you practice the art of being still on your chair or cushion, and you sit some more. And you breathe. The inhalation, the "in" breath, is involuntary and automatic. Following your "out" breaths, you observe the many facets of your mind. You become aware of what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of my meditation teachers, calls the watcher, that part of yourself that watches you and makes reflective comments. The watcher is often the voice of sound judgment and encouragement, but it also can be the voice of the critic within.
Time and time again, I have found that the most direct way to being to center myself and connect with my inner world and the spaciousness of the mind, and to transcend that inner critic, is by sitting still. Many of us never take the time to do this, and even if we do, find it excruciating to sit by ourselves quietly without distraction. If you have never meditated, take five minutes and just sit and follow your breath. Every time a thought arises, as it will almost immediately, just note it without judgment and allow your attention to return to the out breath. As you become aware of the exhalation, let your awareness travel out into space and dissolve as the breath does. Slowly, you will discover your inner chitchat settling down.
With the practice of noting my breath, becoming aware of my breathing, I discovered the spaces between my thoughts.This was a surprise to me because I had believed that constant thinking was an essential part of living. In fact, I thought I would die if I did not think. Yet, as I sat and breathed, I could watch the place where the in breath ended and the out breath began. That moment was the "no thought" moment that gave me a sense of spaciousness, of openness. It was the very moment that was the "crack between the worlds" as described in this Native American prayer. The opening where the artwork "comes out like a great river" as Lenore Tawney described in her process. Watching the ebb and flow of your breath, you learn about your own nature and your thinking/no thinking process, and you learn about the entrance to the creative process.
Native American Prayer
Sundancer, dance into the light
We give our whole being to open up our sight
That we might see the vision, every landscape unfold
That we might dance through the crack between the worlds.