My present way of meditation is blowing shakuhachi, a vertical bamboo flute. It was played in the 17th and 18th centuries by Zen monks in the Fuke tradition known as Komuso (priests of nothingness). The practice of shakuhachi called sui-zen (blowing Zen) is a form of meditation that directs one toward a path of enlightenment. Similar to conventional sitting meditation in which one watches the breath, in shakuhachi playing one also focuses on the breath flow. Doing daily practice, at times I become one with shakuhachi, with breath.
Turning inward to blow shakuhachi and going inward to create visual art are the same for me. Can I say one leads to the other? It is difficult to answer that question precisely. For me, meditation and art are integral parts of my being; they are parallel. The art that I make is an extension of myself.
When I prepare to do my visual art I think, I procrastinate, I think more, I ready my materials. The act of actual creating takes perhaps several hours before the end of the day, when I become absolutely connected with the work. The last hour is really “it.” What I am doing is honest and comes from someplace beyond thought.
Over the past two years, my art has changed. I’ve begun to use bright colors and watch what happens. Previously I had used mud, burlap and earth colors, bringing to mind for the observer and for myself deep, ancient longings. I feel I have said all I can through that medium. Vibrant color is integral to my new work.
During quiet times in my summer studio in upstate New York, I have done pieces such as Cherry Picking, Landscape with Black Dog, and Bailey’s Mailbox, scenes of everyday life. Other recent art deals with women, particularly types of lonely older “invisible” women. Women Who Worked in Woolworth’s and Ella Thinking are good examples of this. I have become interested in a certain type of woman that I used to see working in Woolworth’s in upstate New York. These women are strong, sweet and helpful, and yet they seem to me lonely and forgotten, the very opposite of what our culture portrays as beautiful and perfect. But these women are beautiful. They are funny. They are lively. Most have worked hard and long. We pass them. They go unseen by many.
Years ago, during my first meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, I asked both Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfeld, “Will meditation interfere with my art?” How naive I was. Each in his own way told me that eventually practice would teach me to love truth, love life; that meditation would not squash creativity but spur it. Gradually I have begun to understand their answers. I have become less fooled by the side of our culture that seduces and cleverly draws one in to believing untruths. I have begun to know myself a little better, to see the lively, the funny and the beautiful in the unseen.
In my Drawing I class at Naropa University, we spend the first several weeks drawing in pencil, very slowly, very precisely, with an emphasis on relaxation. It is repetitive, ordinary, sometimes boring. At the same time, it is satisfying and stabilizing. This builds confidence. I call this first phase “settling.” One benefits by remaining in this mode for a long time. I find myself returning to it again and again. Following settling, I introduce a second stage, which I call “leaping.” Here, we do multiple two-minute ink portraits of one another in rapid succession. This provokes a kind of panic. One has to leap; there is no choice. The provocation unseats any lingering complacency from the settling stage. Humor plays an important role. Students are pushed beyond what is familiar, and the results, the portraits in this case, are often hilarious.
These two stages of settling and leaping are related to the two stages of meditation training: shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha, the first stage of focused discipline, develops peace or calm abiding, while vipashyana, the second stage, uncovers insight or clear seeing. In both meditation practice and artistic discipline, one needs initially to suspend one’s conceptual mind. During the first, narrowly focused stage of training, one relaxes physically and mentally again and again, letting the mind settle itself into a state of nonwandering. The mind simply rests, awake. Then, within this relaxed alertness, one may recognize conceptuality, the mind’s habit of naming and categorizing, of solidifying phenomena.
In the meditation practice of following the breath, it is crucial to look closely to see if one is following the breath or maintaining a fabricated idea of how one should be following the breath. Even to say “follows the breath” implies that there is something following something else. Breath simply occurs. The awareness of the breath and the breath itself are not separate; they are simultaneous. The only way that this simultaneity can be realized is when one suspends conceptualizing the experience. The dissolution of conceptuality can begin through the patient, methodical work of shamatha. This is the essential basis for the second stage, vipashyana, where one discovers the unimpeded quality of mind.
It is the same with artistic training. When one sits down to draw, there is usually an ornate stage set of personal history in place. This history may include memories of failure or of having been demeaned; or memories of having been successful, well regarded or clever. In either case, the ensuing activity of drawing gets mixed up with a discursive personal drama of corroborating prior failure or success. Whichever way it goes, the memories and their conceptual elaborations will obscure the direct experience of seeing the object being drawn, appreciation of the tool being used, and reverence for the tremendous magic and mystery of the being doing the drawing.
These two stages of training, whether in art or meditation, are not separate entities. In fruition they are joined. For most of us, though, these stages are experienced alternately as needed. Wildness is tamed by methodical repetition; complacency is unseated by insight, insight into the potential within all situations to penetrate the habitual mind. Mind training—especially for artists—must include a willingness to engage the mind’s boundless energy, its resourcefulness, in all of its brilliance and messy complexity. Play pervades it all.
For as far back as I can remember, creating art has meant entering into a very private “not-knowing” space where anything is possible—from messes to miracles. I remember Mom was alarmed at my unladylike, slack-jawed, wide-eyed expression whenever she caught me sitting on the carpet with paints or crayons: “Close your mouth or a fly will go in!” How could she know that those scribbling little hands were unfolding mysteries, a world beyond the known. I was watching the process from beginning to end, not wanting to miss a moment of what was happening. I rarely set out to draw a tree, a house, a bird; rather, I would become immersed in the colors. As I worked, things appeared out of the chaos; creating was like following a thread until arriving at a feeling of completion. I would sit unmoving for hours in a kind of meditation, feeling something moving through the body into my hands. I enjoyed drawing with closed eyes. The fact is I was totally enchanted, not by completed pictures but by the act of creating. This became troublesome when praise or special recognition for my “talent and artistic skills” was bestowed. I was uncomfortable claiming the art solely as mine because in my heart it was clear I wasn’t the creator. I was a willing collaborator.
The images that have come through my brushes seem to engender quiet contemplation, wonder, serenity in others.
This ability I attribute to the many years I lived in India as a disciple of the enlightened master Osho. In 1975 he gave me the name Deva Padma, meaning Divine Lotus, and at the very earliest stage of our relationship he explained that creativity was my meditation and that it would be the vehicle for my self-transformation.
When Ladakh was opened in 1975 after decades of being cut off from visitors, my partner and I traveled many days from Srinigar in Kashmir, braving horseback, Jeep and foot, headed for a Tibetan monastery. At Hemis (the monastery where Jesus was purported to have learned of the Buddha’s teachings), I came across a group of monks sitting atop a rickety scaffold painting a huge thangka. Learning that I too painted, they invited me up onto the scaffold to paint with them. From that diamond experience I knew that my work and the Buddha’s work were intimately conjoined. Osho later urged me to go deeply into the Buddha image, but not to get stuck in the traditional forms—“just let them come!”
Years later while I was exhibiting in Singapore, the abbot of the Bangkok Buddhist Federation told me via a translator, “Your work will help all sentient beings, whoever sees it. It is powerful; it will bring about your flowering.” These messages are not the sort of thing one takes lightly.
If I get carried away with technique, the outcome is somehow dull, dead, uninspired, simply another creation of “clever mind” seeking to impress, hungering for praise. But if I relax and wait, gradually my hands reveal images
of the inexpressible.
In sitting, coming home to oneself, relaxed and unconcerned with results, one “sees” through the busy mind into a space of pregnant emptiness. Likewise, it is from that vibrating emptiness that whatever is awaiting creative expression comes forth. It’s a bit like a visitor, approaching gradually from far to near until there is a meeting. A conversation, that is actually a conversion, takes place, and from that merging the “Guest” is given color, a form, a face.