Here is a thing that boggles my mind: we need to convince other – we need to argue about – why people should be compassionate towards one another. We need to debate why we should guarantee a living wage? How is the bottom line more important than the basic needs of your workers? We discuss into absurdity why we should pass laws to guarantee that our veterans are cared for. And we need to convince people that we should care for the planet instead of just dumping toxic chemicals will-nilly everywhere. And we have the world we’ve created… that echoes all of these struggles.
Why should we be compassionate and how far should that compassion extend? Just to people who look like us, act like us, think like us? What about the people who are different than us? What about to, say, a tree, a bird, or the air? What’s the use – the utility – of compassion?
We tell stories about a wise sage who told stories about being compassionate. We tell tales with as far out of consequences as possible: you’ll earn karma, have a better spot in heaven, God sent his only Son, and so on. We tell all these stories – over and over. We create religions, stories, institutions… all just to create a reason – why we should feel a little bit of compassion for each other. And for ourselves. How did we go so far from that?
The earth. The animals. Trees, grass, people. The whole planet, the universe, the stars and sun. We run past the homeless person on the street. We can barely fathom that someone of the other side of the world. Our own lives carry on enormous conversations inside of our heads.
Religion: we create these intensely complex forms of spiritual governance all to just stimulate a little compassion for our fellow human – all to give a reason as to WHY we should care for those around us – and, more importantly, those who we perceive to be as DIFFERENT than ourselves.
We see ourselves and everything else. And we have this ingrained idea of needing to struggle to survive and the fittest – not the most collaborative – is the one which will survive. There’s nothing in the capitalistic mindset that says that most compassionate will survive. It’s a dog-eat-dog-world we’re told from the start. Competition is key! The man with the most wins!
The thing is – when we think like that, we stop recognizing ourselves in others. We’re taught to see the differences. Man. Woman. Black. White. Gay. Straight. Old. Young. Blond. Brunette. Red head. And so on. And we’re taught that our survival – in fact: our flourishing – doesn’t depend on their survival.
Yet, like all other organisms, we are self-perpetuating machines striving to perpetuate this human organism. How can we not see that the happiness of others supports our own happiness? And vice versa. We are not individuals: we are separate nodes of a greater organism. And, really, deep down, each of those nodes just wants to love and be loved.
It seems to take so much for us to just feel some compassion for others. And yet: it’s as easy as extending a hand, recognizing the life in another, feeling some kinship to another, and loving.
Names: what we name things. We name things all the time. Often we are using names we’ve been told to call things. Those names serve the purpose of being a point of reference in a conversation. Sketchbook. Pen. Cat. And then there’s more signifying names: my cat’s name is Figaro. Or Lukki. Or Maceo.
I had a name that was given to me when I was born – Michael – and it accompanied a middle name – Robert, my dad’s name – and Brown, my father’s last name. And that was my identity for many years, tying me to a long family heritage and, on a broader scale, a long system of patriarchy.
In typical male/female marriages, the man always keeps his last name. Conversely, the woman has to give up her last name. This is rarely questioned. Sometimes people hyphenate the names but even that is MaleLastName-FemaleLastName. Few men ever consider taking the woman’s last name. Ask some married couple you know about that sometime. They will laugh, feel uncomfortable, etc. It’s weird.
So when Violet and I decided to get married o so long ago, she said: Let’s take a new name. She declared that she wasn’t interested in just taking my name and perpetuating the patriarchal idea of ownership of the wife. At the same time, we wanted to be creating a solid container and, along the lines of the naming of things and, in a sense, bringing them into being via the name, a hyphenated name still seemed to create a sense of together-but-separate. It didn’t feel like that solid unified container that the contract of marriage created.
Violet suggested we take a new name. The new name would be our new container that we agreed upon together. It would be the name we decided to call ourselves. We are mirrors of the world around us so we wanted the name to reflect how we see the world.
Taking a name from another culture didn’t feel right. Our language is our language and its words and sounds and turns of phrase are a part of its own magic. It’s the language we have grown up speaking and the one we use to the call the world into being. Taking a word from another culture seems to support an imagined esotericism.
Quite importantly, we wanted it to sound right in our ears, with our first names, etc. It had to have a nice flow to it. Like harmonies in song, the last name had to work with the sounds of our first names. I like to feel words in my mouth: feel how they rolls off the tongue. Or not. How they starts and stops. Where they breathe and where they pause. So much meaning – and reflection of the world we perceive – is related through the sounds of words.
Lots of different words flowed through our mouths and ears. Finally we settled on “Divine”. It seemed to fill in the blank of that last name appropriately and would be symbolic of the container of this new family we were creating. It mirrored how we saw the world – all of the world – as divine. This divine life. This divine being.
Sometimes people meet me and they have this idea of me based on my name and on their own ideas of what Divine might mean – and why I might have chosen it. To some, it’s pretentious because the “Divine” is a far off thing or idea and who am I to call myself that? To others, it’s more what-your-last-name-wasn’t-good-enough? because we should be content with who and what and where we are in life. And, for others, it makes me super spiritual, whatever that might mean, because the Divine is so spiritual. The they meet me and they see that I’m really a rather ordinary person. I’m just this guy who sometimes has a rather crass sense of humor. I like wine and music. I like life. And to some, even that is an affront because, in their eyes, it’s not divine enough.
I can’t take responsibility for the projections of others. But I can take responsibility for who I am – and that is a human being, living his life. I enjoy this life quite a bit – with all of its many facets – and try to see it for what it is, whatever that might be.
And if we were to choose a word for that ‘what it might be’ then Divine seems to be a pretty good word.
I’m rounding the corner, walking home from the organic market that we shop at, and it’s a chilly evening. The sun is well past gone. I have a small bag of groceries in my arm – chocolate, coffee, some vegetables, some coconut milk creamer – and a man pushing a grocery cart filled with plastic bottles and aluminum cans passes me. He looks to be smiling but then again maybe he’s grimacing and I wonder: what stroke of life gave this man a cold evening to push a grocery cart filled with plastic bottles, maybe just trying to find enough to make a few dollars and buy something to eat – and me, walking to my warm home. Sometimes, driving through downtown LA, I end up on one of the blocks of homeless people living in tents, pushing shopping carts that contain everything they own, living in the gutter. I wonder at how it is that I am in my car, listening to music, on my way to a meeting, or a dinner with friends, or just getting on the highway and heading home and they are there, stuck in some all together different way of life. I wonder at how the uber-wealthy end up so high up on that pedestal they place themselves upon, sometimes unable to truly value the little things.
I wonder at this… this world with all of it’s countless threads of lives going on: where some are bombed, others are swaddled, some are cared for, and some are left to be trodden upon, some walk tall, some walk small, some don’t walk at all… I wonder how it is that man is legless and I walk along or that child was born without sight, and I can see. How that person appears to be ahead of me, and that person is behind. The vast multitudes and all the myriad walks of life. I wonder at it and I wonder at how I ended up here: making art, doing what I love, living unafraid, neither angry nor resentful, but loving it. I’m in a wonderful marriage to a wonderful woman, with a home that is warm and, right now, smells like fresh baked bread, with a cat on my lap and soft music playing and soft lighting. I wonder at it all and the only thing I am left with – the only answer that comes back to me, echoing from my heart and what feels like the heart of all things – is gratitude: at this gift, this life.
Gratitude is like the late afternoon sunshine, touching everything, turning it gold.
I ran across this quote from Chögyam Trungpa the other day:
“Compassion automatically invites you to relate with people because you no longer regard people as a drain on your energy.”
-Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
I read the ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ years ago and it has forever echoed in my mind. The title pretty much carries it’s message: it’s not about how many mantras or sun salutations you can do or how many retreats you’ve been to or how spiritual you dress or look or what temple you visit or how many holy books are on your bookshelves or how many pictures of holy beings are on your altar – it’s about you and your process, everything else is just icing – a mask, something we identify with. I consider this often when I am in my day to day life – when I am interacting in my day to day world – buying groceries, crossing the street, cleaning out the cat litter box. It’s al just stuff and my buddha statue on my altar is no more or less holy, it’s just a different reminder, a placeholder – an icon to jog me back to – it doesn’t matter what the fuck you are doing – if you do it with compassion and wisdom, it’s awesome.
In any case, the quote that I started this out with is something I’ve been contemplating as it’s arisen in my mind and I’ve been working on integrating it into the habits of my day to day living. I tend to be somewhat aloof by nature. “Nature” of course is all the causes and conditions that made this identity I consider to be me. I don’t need to be aloof but it’s sort of an identity pattern that I fall back on when faced with the challenge, say, of meeting new people. Regardless of that, I also tend towards being somewhat more introverted than extroverted (although I do my best to overcome it). So I sometimes feel drained by large social gatherings. By comparison, my wife, Violet, feels incredibly energized by being out amongst lots of people. For me, it can at times be an effort to stay present and open in that sort of present, interactive manner with people. If it’s with a large group of people I know well then I have a much easier time of it. In the times where I’m meeting new people in large groups, I think that, acting from a place of compassion, returning to one’s heart, can be an excellent way to overcome the tendency towards withdrawing. (Granted, acting from a place of compassion is always the answer – it’s just important to look at specific instances soemtiems)(
More importantly however, regardless of the time and place, is the instance of the person coming up to us whom we don’t want to engage with. We might know this person already even and say to others ‘that person is an energy vampire, I don’t want to talk to them’. Yet, their own set of causes and conditions shaped their identity and they act based on those causes and conditions. Most importantly, they just want to love and be loved.
I think that when one can simply be compassion then there is no drain because there is no end. A drain sucks the last drop out from the container but there is no container. There are only concepts. Ego has a beginning and an end… Life, energy, love – there is no end. Sometimes it is best to simply find a few concepts that work best. Compassion is one such concept. If we are to choose words for things and choose one way of being over another – we always have the choice to either kick the puppy or love it – doesn’t it feel best to choose the compassionate route?
To be fair, in the end, ALL things engaged with a sense of compassion will have healthier and more enjoyable consequences than otherwise. We either engage life from a place of compassion or we don’t. If we notice the places where we aren’t engaging from a place of compassion and push against those walls that hold us back then who knows what we might find there….
To be fair, I, too, have plenty of moments where, in retrospect, I think: well that was pretty uncompassionate of me. But with the right effort, we can move mountains. The results of our work might not be seen in a day, or two days, or a week. But over time, our walls break down. We become more loving creatures. That, in the end, is what it is all about. It doesn’t matter how many grand pianos you have or how many grand sonatas you can play – it doesn’t matter how many spiritual tomes you have read or how many crystals are on your altar – just whether or not you can allow any and all of the myriad things of the world to open your heart, whatever that might be.
I give you one of my flaws as an artist: I have no pedigree. I haven’t studied with any famous artists (although I’ve met a few). I can’t tell you any stories about how such-and-such the Great Master came into my studio late at night, declared I was doing it all wrong, and then proceeded to show me how to do it right. I haven’t attended any prestigious art schools. (Although I’ve lived near them!) My paintings are owned by only a few collectors with any notoriety (though I’m not going to say whom for the sake of privacy) and so far my work has yet to show up in any museums. I fall into that icky grey area for collectors and galleries alike: “talented but self-taught”. It bothers me at times that I get pigeon-holed and judged in this way and feels like a prejudice – a strike against me – as it comes up even within my own ‘scene’. While the art world of LA has it’s own cliquey snobbery and it’s LA Schools of Thought which I will likely never be assimilated into – the David Hockney/Baldessari hub for instance – this visionary art community has it’s own cliques and circles which galleries do take note of and, in that community, I am at times still sort of disregarded because of my lack of schooling, lineage, etc.
What I find interesting is that the movements which gave birth to this art of the inner world – the early modern art movements of Impressionism, Futurism, Surrealism – all eschewed the academy as it was. They were seeking to create art for arts sake and explore beauty as it is. They were more interested in the dialogue that the artist has with life than the dialogue between artist, academy and art critic. In time however – through the 40’s and 50’s – the ‘academy’ and the world of art criticism adopted and co-opted the movements for their own. Eventually, this Contemporary Art that one sees glorified in too many museums became the norm. These days, the fact that the artist who painted the large panels just one color attended some art school and studied with someone who also had some pedigree themselves and who had already been deemed notable by the academy suddenly imbued those solid color panels with some mystic sense of importance and lineage, even if that lineage is full of shit. If the panels were just presented by Joe Schmoe Nobody then the ‘art world’ at large would’ve laughed them off.
Yet, to be honest, if the artist had perhaps not had any schooling but had instead had some deep revelation, had worked through multiple demons, had their lonely nights of solitude, and simply decided, off in non-art creation, to paint these large canvases and simply gave personal reasons for their coming into being… I think I’d pay attention a bit more.
Me – I left college after two years and it wasn’t even art school. My biography on my website sort of glosses over that whole bit. The short of it: my pragmatic parents, living in coastal suburban Connecticut, a world of yards and nine to five jobs, worried that I wouldn’t get a good job if I skipped out on the important liberal arts education and instead went to art school. At the age of seventeen, the middle child, and ultimately not entirely sure what I wanted, I ended up agreeing with my high school guidance counsellor in a fit of I-could-care-less and found myself enrolling at Syracuse University in upstate New York.
There, amongst an entire enclave of not fitting in or knowing what they were doing, I was blessed with a couple of surprise gifts. For one, as a student with a work-study arrangement, I got a job in my second year working in the slide library of the Fine Arts department in the main library. At that time – this was 1995 and the internet still had yet to be of much use – the library had an extensive collection of slides of seemingly every important work of art, photography, sculpture, and architecture that had come out of the Western world dating back to pre-Renaissance times. Lucky me, I got to sit at a typewriter and type onto little labels the name, date, etc, for each slide. Oh, god, was it tedious. I wasn’t much good at typing either, all things considered. Still, after the labeling was done, there was the organizing. People would take slides out (presumably for art classes which I never got to attend) and I would put them back in the drawers upon drawers of slides. I could sit at a light box and study all of them. I could look at them with a magnifying glass or a small projector that you hold up to your eye. It was magical and I would get lost in them for hours. I saw everything and was able to piece together the dialog that art had had with itself for the past thousand years – from Le Corbusier to Gehry to Kandinsky to Pollack to Goya to Da Vinci to all and everyone.
It was in those days that I began to incorporate the kaleidoscopic nature of cubism and futurism with the dreamy associative qualities of surrealism while sticking to the psychedelic spiritualism that I knew so well. The echoes that the images left in my mind found their way through my meandering pencil and sometimes rather addled vision.
Another thing which offered a vast amount of inspirational fodder were the studies in comparative religions during my second year of school. Syracuse had, at that time anyhow, a noteworthy Department of Religious Studies. Houston Smith taught there which gave it some weight in the academic world. Mr. Smith (Dr.?) was a scholar of comparative religions which is the study not just of religions as institutions and the histories thereof but also of the archetypal human spiritual experience for which religions become a framework. Through the focus in comparative religious studies I was able to gain some understanding and perceptual grounding for my own personal experiences as well as begin to understand the more archetypal human experience as it related to ‘spirit’.
My doodlings, my fledgling paintings, all reflected these thoughts and inquiries. In my second year of college I painted my first ‘great’ painting and called it ‘Surrender‘ (I think I wrote about it here another time). I painted it with acrylics because, I think, I’d started painting with water colors years before and understood the water/wash techniques. Besides, oils took longer to dry, required more pieces to their puzzle, and, to a poor college student, seemed to cost a fair bit more. While painting that piece, I had this experience: A book opened up inside my head and it flipped through pages upon pages of artwork that I had apparently created and it was my life and, I’m not kidding, a voice in my head sort of said or simply resonated – “you can do this for the rest of your life if you want. You just have to give away everything you have, leave school, trust in the way and it will all open up for you.”
By that time, it was around late January of my second year I think, I had moved off-campus claiming to the housing administration that the dorm lifestyle was impeding my flow which, perhaps, it was. I’d spent my first year in an incredibly debaucherous haze. The highs and lows were sort of startlingly self-destructive and yet, not entirely unpredictable, considering that I was caught between trying to please my parents, experiencing some sense of freedom for the first time, not sure what the hell I was doing, and trying to figure out who I was anyhow. My roommate that first year had left school after the first semester and I was never assigned a new one so I had a large room and a lot of everything else. My grades plummeted. My artwork dawdled and grew and, in copious sketchbooks, poured out of me. There were a lot of hangovers, a lot of long crazy nights, a lot of everything that wasn’t school work. So, at the time of painting ‘Surrender’ in my second year at school, I had found a small community of hippie types, was living with a friend and my girlfriend who was a few years older than me who also had a year and a half old son and we lived in a house in a crummy neighborhood near campus that was a mix of students and broken homes and I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
Come summer, that experience during Surrender was nagging at me. Because my parents had agreed that after two years of ‘liberal arts’ I could pursue art school, I’d gone to see someone at Syracuse’s School of Art. The woman I talked to suggested that I look into pattern design (Northeasterners are so pragmatic!) and I was left feeling a bit disappointed. I had vision! Drive! I wanted to make and create! I didn’t want to get lost in a sweatshop designing upholstery fabric! So by summer, I was living in Syracuse still, working a job at a book bindery. I was in an unhealthy relationship. I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. All I saw was a tangential downwards spiral that continued to pull me away from any real goal – from my path, whatever that may be.
So I did it – I listened to the voice. I left school. I gave away almost everything I had. I moved back to Milford, CT, where I’d grown up. I cried a bit when I told my parents that I wouldn’t be going back to school the following year. Ever practical, they suggested that I look into trade schools. I felt I had disappointed them – I am the oldest son and my dad, the oldest in his family, had never gone to college nor had any of his siblings. There is a certain amount of pride that I knew I’d never be able to fulfill. No, I said, I would never be going back to school. That’s what made me sad – that they would never get to see me graduate. Well that surprised them a bit but they didn’t push it. While they told me that I was on my own (fair enough) they also knew they wouldn’t be wasting any money on school. Maybe they even saw it as saving two years worth of tuition! In any case, I got a job bagging groceries at a grocery store in suburban Connecticut. If I told you it was amazing, I would be lying.
But I had friends, you see, and I have always been able to count on a beautiful synchronicity with my friends and my community in ways that I can never fully articulate. A good community is one that seems to respond to you when you haven’t even reached out to it. As someone who didn’t have much in the way of friends through grammar school, I learned to not take that brotherhood of friendship for granted. So my friend Ryan called me up and said he’d been living in Vermont the past winter, having left school (he has since gotten his PhD in mathematics) and did I want to join him and some others and spend the winter living in a house at a ski mountain, working, skiing, partying, skiing, painting (if that was my thing) etc?
Of course I would.
So that was that. It surprised my parents a bit – how quickly I got swept up my a new boat but that was just the beginning of many years of flowing journeys and magical moments and long lovely interludes. But one way or another the fact is: something in me said I should go paint and so I did.
That’s the story of my pedigree – my early training. What happened after Vermont? Well, there was a summer of cross country back packing and traveling and then another winter of skiing, then moving into the countryside of Northern Vermont rather semi-permanently. There were lots of parties, lots of painting, lots of walking in the woods, then more travel, lying on beaches, then something else, met lots of people, then another thing, then yoga and meditation, more parties, more travel, another thing and another thing, lots and lots and lots of painting and drawing, and eventually I was in California rather regularly and eventually SoCal caught me and I met this girl and we got married and, fifteen years later, here I am.
I truly feel that a great painting is not painted with concepts and rigorous research but is instead painted with experiences. I never had anyone tell me how to paint. I taught myself. I studied old masters. I studied not-so-old masters. I went out and practiced seeing. I sat alone on hillsides for hours just looking at the light. I tasted horizons and studied gradations. I looked inside my mind and studied light and poked it and prodded it and pushed through it. I learned to apply what I saw to my work. I got it wrong. I did it again. I got it wrong. I did it again. I got a bit better. I did it again. And on and on and on. Until now.
I paint. I love to paint. Some of my highest most sublime moments have been had while painting. Painting, not a methodology or an academy, not a who’s who of name-dropping – Painting is the path. How do you make truly great art? Simply by practice- every day, every night, in your mind, in your life, and on the canvas.
I’ll tell you where the four winds dwell,
In Franklin’s tower there hangs a bell,
It can ring, turn night to day,
It can ring like fire when you loose your way.
– Robert Hunter
It’s all about ringing that bell. THAT is what I am here for.
Around 2am I usually just can’t paint any more. Sometimes it’s a tad later. Sometimes a tad earlier. But usually it’s about five or six hours in and my hand is cramped and my back is aching and my eyes are starting to blur and my brushstrokes start to lose their precision. The good things is that once I get like that I usually feel pretty good about my work for the night. It means that I covered a lot of ground. Painting is about ‘the process’ as much as ‘the product’. Sometimes, it’s just a lot of blanks to fill in. You see, the story is written. The path is clear. I’m just following a dotted line that leads to an inevitable conclusion. There are nuances to be explored, and colors and lines to be enunciated but the gist of the piece – this piece that I’m working on right now anyhow – was decided long ago. I am merely completing the vision.
While I paint, my mind wanders through many worlds and my heart travels through multitudinous emotions the way one might try on different outfits. And there are pure zen moments where I’m not thinking about anything. Or elated loving moments where my heart is suddenly sort of glowing. Don’t dwell on it, though! Such feelings are mere feelings and as ephemeral as the clouds. But I do appreciate those moments. It never hurts to simply center one’s sense of consciousness in the center of one’s chest instead of in the center of the head, where we tend to look out at the world from.
O painting, it has taught me so much – so many little things that apply to my life. So many big things that have opened up inside me – grand a-has! – sublime epiphanies – eternal love – sweetly understood connections.
Here are some thoughts on painting that have tended to have metaphorical meanings to my life:
1. The color on your palate will not be the color on the canvas. That color, so carefully mixed, will likely end up looking ten shades different once you place it between the blue and the orange. Is that the color we were looking for? What thoughts do we have that are actually incongruous with reality?
2. The epiphany does not always occur when one is painting the representation of the eternal light. Most times, it is when one is in the corners, the crevices, the shadows, working out the details, trying to understand the mystery.
3. Be prepared for the unexpected. Go with it. It might lead somewhere great. However, always be prepared to completely disregard it. Sometimes the great tangent leads only to distraction. Which leads us to…
4. Sometimes, all of your hard work leads to an object that needs to be one inch to the left. Or an entire field of color that is a shade too dark. Or an entire array of minuets who must be two inches higher. Or whatever. In any case – sometimes, after five hours of work, you might step back and say: I did it wrong. If you don’t paint over it, if you don’t take the time to do it right then you will always look at it and know that the painting wasn’t quite what it could have been. And if you know this, then so will the whole world, whether anyone can put their finger on it or not.
5. When you get over the self-criticism, and do away with the self-doubt, you can create a sense of beauty that soars. How do you overcome these things? By practice. By showing up. By allowing all the voices to have their say but, in the end, following only your bliss.
6. Finally, few great paintings were ever created overnight. The painters of the greatest paintings lived their entire lives before them. They laughed with them. They cried with them. They curled up inside them. They burst out through them. They were transformed by them. Yet, we do not paint for just ourselves. We live our lives through our art in order to allow ourselves to be the shining lights that we are. In this way, by being that living art, we can be a catalyst of beauty.
To a true artist, the work comes as naturally as the breeze or the shine of the stars. Walls block the breeze from reaching our skin. Walls block the shine of the stars from illuminating our gaze. By breaking down the walls that hold back that flowing nature, we can reach deeper depths and higher heights and great NOWs.
There is a story of a bird wearing down a mountain by passing over it once every hundred years with a piece of silk. This is a long time. Think of your painting process like that. Every day, every hour, every minute, that bird is passing over that mountain. It is wearing down those heaps of self-criticism, of self-doubt, of fear of whatever, and every day the sunrise on the other side of that mountain is revealed just a bit more.
Occasionally we may burst through that mountain with heaps of dynamite. The heaps of dynamite are only successful if we are open to allowing it to do it’s work. How do we become open to that? By every day allowing for that bird to fly over the mountain. By showing up.
If we complete all the little details of the painting and bring them to their highest height, then the grand thing of the painting will be the absolute grandest thing. (until we paint the next painting. And the next painting.)
In the end, we are maybe just painting the toenails of eternity with reflections of itself. There is nothing wrong with that, especially if we do it with love.
This afternoon, after a short time, I closed my eyes while sitting in the hanging chair suspended from the eave of my house. My sleepy sleep deep mind rocked back and forth like a babe in a basinet and I could feel each rise and each dip so supremely deep that I might have been rocked to sleep, if even for a moment. Eventually tho I rose again and put the book back – Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior by Chogyam Trungpa – in which was spoken of and I read of the act of recognizing and indentifying oneself through countless reference points – now I am doing this, now I am thinking this – and then the act of forgetting, losing oneself in that. And then, if we encase ourselves in a sea of I’s – how terribly lonely it gets! Because we have separated ourselves from everything at that point. Good food for thought and meditation. I find myself meditating on these things while making dinner, petting the kitty, working on whatever my work may be, while walking down the street, into a store, driving my car. I find myself considering – form is formlessness but formlessness is also form.
I read somewhere someone once – we’ll say a monk or a lama – saying that, while form as formlessness/emptiness is relatively easy to understand – the reverse, that formlessness becomes form, is sometimes much more difficult to fully realize. We can intellectualize these things – we often intellectualize- we know this or that – but until we have the direct experience of it, it’s sort of a useless tool. It’s like having a hammer and knowing completely and thoroughly how it works but til we use it – til we actually lift it and heft it’s weight and feel it’s balance and swing it do we see how one might use it. Until then, it does us no good what so ever. the same goes for various concepts of form, compassion, wisdom, awareness. It feels that the more i understand the nature of emptiness, the calmer I am, the more loving, the more compassionate, and the less prone to whims of this or that. I’ve gotten better at it for sure over the years. but still… I get into arguments. I hold back. I do this or that. To be the warrior is to be exposed, to be raw, and to know that nothing – nothing what so ever – can hurt you because there is nothing, ever, that can be hurt that is you. Or me. Or anything. And so we are simply 100% honest – with others and, most importantly, with ourselves.
Over the years I’ve encountered numerous philosophies and ways of being in the world. I’ve tried them on like outfits. Some fit okay but weren’t suitable for all occasions and had to be left behind. Others didn’t fit at all and, in their metaphorical stitching, were shoddily made, had too many loose threads and too many hidden pockets. I can’t deal with that sort of mess. Some have fit rather well – sexy when they need to be sexy, respectable when they need to be respectable, and secure, when they need to be secure. In essence, some have reflected deeper ways of being for me than others. Some have fit in far more circumstances than others.
One proverbial outfit that I have been drawn back to, time and again, is Buddhism. This isn’t to say that I identify as “a Buddhist”, just that it’s approach and philosophy – it’s way of looking at the world – has continually supported my growth and, at it’s core, it’s basic system of understand, has yet to have show any loose ends.
Of the vast tree that is Buddhism – a philosophy that has devolved into a religion as much as the teachings of Christ have branched out into a multi-headed beast – it is the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism that have been the most present in my life and, of that school, I’ve tended to appreciate the rather lucid and accessible writings of Chogyam Trungpa (as well as Pema Chodron, a student of his). There are various views and stories of Trungpa and I’ll leave that to you to ferret out. However, it is perhaps his association with the Beats, with Allen Ginsburg, with Naropa, with drinking and drugs and the psychedelic 60’s that allows him to bridge a cultural divide and the worlds of the ancient East with the new age West, entering into Western culture through the hippie doorway. The beats and poets and their entourages were seeking to get down to the core – away from the story, man, and just go with what was happening. Trungpa had an uncanny knack for writing and speaking very straight forwardly and stripping the story – the dogma, the religion – away from the philosophy. And I appreciate that.
Buddhism itself can be a very dogmatic religion full of curtseys and salutations and rules and restrictions. In this way, it isn’t any different than most other religions. Because of this, I can understand how those who are raised Buddhist gravitate toward Catholicism and vice versa.
I, myself, was raised a Catholic. Did I take to Catholic philosophy the way that I did to Buddhist understandings? Well, for me, it was tough to weed out the philosophy from a religion that states, in answer to the question of “Why?” that it’s because it’s in the Bible and because God said so. That is decidedly not philosophy. Later on, I came to understand the message that Jesus (or whoever that whole bit of the Bible was about as that is sometimes up for debate) had to share. His message of brotherhood and compassion and seeing God in all things, seeing the divine as the abundant core of all things, is very relevant and inspiring.
Ultimately, Christianity had a lot to say about this human family – how we should treat one another, how we should love and that we should do so because God is at the center of all things (according to the Gospel of Thomas) but, as a religion, it had very little to say regarding why it was difficult to do so sometimes other than the dogmatic devolvement into sin and guilt. Buddhism, on the other hand, deals a lot with why we have such a hard time being open and loving and compassionate in the world. It can be summed up in three words: attachment, indifference, and aversion. It is the dance between those things, and all the desires and stories and fears and beliefs that we associate with them, that makes it sometimes difficult to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, which is, ultimately, to love one another unconditionally and, in fact – love all things unconditionally: even this glass, the driveway, the lines on the street, my cell phone, the floor. Everything. Just let them be as they are. Instead, we have a belief in a separate ego identity and, because of this, create hierarchical system of likes and dislikes according to the whims of an illusion. Madness!
Religions are powerful because they speak to some of the deepest parts of ourselves: our desire for spiritual union, our loves, our fears, our projections. God is, for so many people, a great big projection of Parents, a safety net that makes people feel cared for. It gives them a sense of authority when they need to tell someone else what to do (well, God said so!). Or it’s just something to answer to that isn’t themselves. Granted, the UFO-heads have simply replaced the outward “God” with Aliens or Star Beings or whatever. Same with the 2012/Mayan Prophecy folks. One way or another it’s this superstition that something out there is going to come and save us or is watching over us or is something we will have to answer to that is the basis of most belief systems. The superstitiousness of religious thought pulls us away from the religions core philosophy. Religions become as powerful and huge as they are because there is, inside of them, core truths about human nature and they capitalize on this.
Buddhism, too, is not without it’s own superstitions, belief systems, and dogmas. However, the core of Buddhism, it’s answer to the question of “Why is it hard to love others openly at all times, including myself and all that surrounds me?” is what always drew me back. According to the various teachers I’ve met over the years, the answer is always the same: “Why? Well, because there is this belief in ‘ego’ and this attachment-aversion thing. You are skeptical? Good! Great! Tell you what, try it out, see how it works. If it doesn’t work, throw it out. If it does, keep at it.” And that was it.
“Why is it hard to love unconditionally?”
“Well, because we have attachments and the basest attachment of all is to the belief of a solid core ego-identity. As long as that belief is there then we will continue to fall. Whenever you can get through the ego, there is always this thing that remains and the best word we have to describe it is: compassionate wisdom.”
“Ah, well… how do i know what you are saying is true? After all, when I asked the priest that, he just said it was original sin, guilt, all that stuff.”
“Sit. Breathe. Focus on your breath. Do this for a long time. Then get back to me.
And sure enough! There it was! Burning endless compassionate love. Only after days of sitting did I uncover what had never been covered. That’s the only way I have to describe the underlying nature. To put it into words is to compartmentalize an experience. So we will move on.
The point is: we’ve been given inwards paths and outwards paths and they are all one path and it’s only how deeply we choose to self-identify and how much we are willing to let go that either ever hold us back.
I ran into my landlord the other day. He happened to be outside of my house, dealing with remodeling the back house. He’s a small (to my 5′ 11.5”) Asian fellow. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know from where: Japanese? Korean? Chinese? I confess ignorance. I think he’s Vietnamese. Southeast Asian, for sure. In any case, he wanted to chat a bit. He’s seen my art and likes it, has even told me he reads my blog sometimes and enjoys my writing. He might be reading this right now. Hi Edward!
He asked me about Violet, who he knows is studying philosophy, and that ignited a thought in his head about things he’d read about quantum physics. The gist of which, that he related to me, is that physicists have found that these minute particles – smaller than quarks – solidify when we go to measure them or predict them to be in a certain place but, at other times, simply go back to being waves. it is as if they solidify in response to our measuring tools and, at all other times, are simply energy waves. When we let everything be as it is, it is simply energy? Undefinable, unmeasurable, imperceivable: except when we choose to perceive it. Unquantifiable – except when we choose to quantify it.
This amazed him, he said. Not just because of it’s relevance to how we perceive the world but because of it’s relevance to the religious Buddhism that he grew up with. “I’d just thought it all was superstition – that life is just perception,” he said to me, “but now science is proving what these people had figured out many many years ago – that reality is a response to our perceptions.”
I laughed. It was true.
I confessed to him that I too had grown up with a superstitious religion – Catholicism – and only later in life did I come to appreciate the truths that were buried within it.
He laughed and said that I was perhaps smarter than I gave myself credit.
Fair enough! Can’t argue with that!
The thing is: so many of us get turned off by Religion and Superstition that we fail to see the truths that are embedded within these systems. I’m not suggesting you go out and get a Bible or a copy of the Dhammapada or the any other book. It’s just that the belief systems that last are the ones with a core Truth. And the truth is that which is the simplest, most sincere way of being. Why? Because those belief systems are the ones that are most attuned to self-preservation and living harmoniously with the world around themselves. If we create a healthy world around us, then we will live a healthy life and if we can figure out how to do so – all the better. Sadly, those core truths then get tampered with by humans whose sense of Self doesn’t extend any further than their own skin and, in greedy and manipulative ways, end up using these truths for their own self-aggrandizement: for controlling the masses, for money or power or lust or greed. It has happened to the teachings of Jesus, to the teachings of Buddha, to the teachings of Mohammed, and so on.
And yet, there is a line, a lineage, a train of thought, that has continued throughout time and has woven itself through art, science, music, literature, poetry, philosophy… A train of thought that has continued to evolve even as it’s left it’s own religious structures. It is a spiritual way of being and a sense of union that unites all things. It is only up to us to perceive it.
It is this:
I am you. You are Me. Which is to say:
One, all, everything, none, all at once, and not at all. We. Us. Now.
It is a voice which is projected and perceived through countless means: through paintings and poetry and song, through the work we do and the way we greet each other, through the lives we lead and the seeds we plant, through the plants we nurture and the hearts we fill. We repeat the story back to ourselves again and again and again simply because of the joy of doing so, of hearing so, of experiencing so and the ecstasy that happens when one more note is discovered in that endless endless song.
Yet, are we so enraptured by this story that we will destroy the earth while we listen to it, while we speak it, while we sing and dance and love and rejoice and hate and cry and mine and pillage and burn and trash?
Is that, too, part of the dance.
If it is all perception and the whole of reality freezes itself into whatever view I take of it: “the people need saving” or “the people are saved” or “the people are. period.” or “….” then who am I to do anything?
I can only live as I know how with my own sense of self-preservation. Why would I do unto others as I would have them do unto me? If I kill, I will be killed. If I steal, then I’ll be stolen from. If I love then, likely, I’ll be loved. If I feed, then I will be fed. And so on.
I seek to live a healthier, happier, more loving life because it helps you to do so as well. And, by helping you to do so, you will help me to do so. And we will live long. And prosper. That’s the goal. To live long and
Yet, when I die, when I close my eyes, for all I know: it’ll all be gone.
I identify as an artist and, as such, I love and seek beauty. For me, the most beautiful is the most loving, the most compassionate, the most joyful. I’ll never know those things if I don’t dredge up the dirt. I can only be the diamond if I have been the coal. I can only be the lotus if I have planted myself in the muck.
Muck is a perception. Coal, and our attachments and ideas around it, also just a perception. Diamonds, too. Life is simply endless becoming and endless is-ness.
I love the darkness as much as I love the light because I cannot see a difference between the two.
I am you. You are me.
You and I are one.
I wish you happiness.
I wish you freedom.
One thing at a time.
And all at once.
Self-Doubt is a mask worn over the mask of Self-Destruction that is worn, ultimately, by Fear. Self-doubt: I-don’t-know-if-i’m-good-enough. It’s a mask that says: maybe I should never have started. Self-doubt says: am i – is it – will it be ever be good enough? Do I actually suck and no one is telling me? Even when they congratulate me and pat me on the back? Even then? Will I ever make it? Am I ever good enough?
The Wright Brothers: for some reason or another they come to mind. Two guys trying to fly a plane – to lift this thing off the ground. I’m sure they heard more “You’ll never make it” than “I believe in you.” So they worked daily on believing in themselves. In the end, though, math doesn’t lie and their math was, in the end, sound. So they succeeded.
There are the more abstract worlds, though, that some of us choose to live in that doesn’t seem to appeal to ordinary mathematics. Myself, I decided to be an artist. As an artist, a painter, I use a stick with a bunch of hair glued to the end to push and pull colored pigments suspended in a polymer medium around a surface of woven cotton covered with a hardened chalk substance. Granted, the stick is rather finely crafted, the hairs are supremely smooth and supple, and the “paint” is luxuriously smooth and homogeneously mixed. I might be using it to create a scene expressing the intensity of living. I am using it to illuminate a vision of my mind. I am exploring the verdant valleys of my soul and how it relates to the world around me.
But then self-doubt comes creeping in.
When self-doubt arrives, everyone else looks so sure of themselves, so confident. When self-doubt makes itself at home, every glitch in the system looks like a five-lane highway. When self-doubt is there to stay, nothing will ever get done and things crumble.
Self-destruction is the ruler of Self-Doubt, which is just one more minion of small ‘s’ self which is built on a foundation of fear – fear of it’s own demise. Big ‘S’ Self knows better but depending on how much time we give it versus small ‘s’ self, depends on how much we will listen to it. Self-Destruction, that wily bastard, is happy to start chipping away at our masterpiece which is, ultimately, the perfected Self.
Like every one else in the world, I sometimes crumble.
Just as an investor earns returns on his investment, so there are returns on the work we create. When the people like it, we rejoice in their rejoicing. When the critics like it, we rejoice. Yet, if one in 99 critics doesn’t like it, we linger over the words of that one. We see all other words as just placation – mere salve for a wound – while the words of the critic sting and we take them personally. The others: oh, they satisfy ‘ego’, we tell ourselves in our too-spiritual monologue. Don’t get wrapped up in that, we tell ourselves with little ‘s’ self wearing the cloaks of our teachers, our saviors. Why don’t we allow ourselves (ourSelves) to just understand that we are doing something right?
It can be so very difficult sometimes to allow for that. You are on the right path. You are ferreting out the proper vision. This is the message that life returns back to us in various coincidences and syncopations and gifts – like echoes of our actions. And yet, that little ‘s’ self would like very much if we didn’t hear it so it pulls out the magnifying glass to examine the criticism and shoves aside the praise. We’re trying to destroy our ego, it says, don’t listen to that bullshit pat-on-the-back praise.
Sometimes, those 99 positive reviews and the 1 negative review are just the voices in our heads. Like an old-time operating room with an entire audience reviewing our every move, our work is on display for every voice – every face we’ve ever known – to judge it.
Some will love it. But, says the voice of self-doubt, they always love what we do. We can’t do any wrong in their eyes, so what’s the use in even bothering with them?
Some will merely like it. We’re always trying to please them just a little bit more. Really we just want their love but we are fine with the ‘like’. Fuck those people, says little ‘s’ self.
Some will neither like nor dislike. We really only wanted their attention if their attention was positive. Really, we hate it when we don’t get any attention for the blood and tears we grind up to create this.
Some will not like what we have done at all but will not be passionate about it or have a reason. To each their own, we say, those people never had any conviction to begin with.
Some will very much dislike it. For obvious reasons! we cry, our flaws are so apparent! It’s not good enough. It never was. Why are they so dead-set against it? Their opinion will, sadly, matter the most to us because it saps at our joy. Their confidence erodes our own.
And, with that, Self-doubt will slowly but surely, if we allow it, undermine our defenses against Self-Destruction. If we run that race, we’ll end up with all the others: living up to the potential that the biggest doubter set up for us. We will always be trying to create Good Enough or Next Best or Good Try when all we really want and desire are the masterpieces that we know are in there.
We set up the paradigm at a young age. Whether we wanted to or not, we wanted to please others, most notably, from the start, our parents. We found that if we pleased other humans they showed us Love. We weren’t sure what that was exactly, but it had to do with a sparkle in the eye and a tone of voice and a sense of belonging and openness.
Later we went to school and met others. There was something similar in that sense of belonging, that Love. That sense of confidence overflowed into the things we created.
Somewhere along the line someone who wasn’t so caring (or to whom it was similarly said) declared: “You did it all wrong.” Their tone of voice threw us off. The look in their eyes made us feel ‘outside’. Even though we had friends, family, everything, one person was able to snatch it all away. As time went by, it was one more and one more and one more until we learned that some liked what we made and some would not. What no one told us was that many of those who ‘liked’ us merely did so because they too wanted to be loved. It was merely an exchange and, deeper down, they too were afraid of not being loved. That fear was self-doubt; it was the shadow beneath the twinkle in the eye that said ‘I like you! Let’s be Friends!’
How do we nurture the inner fire that burns on and on? The inner fire: soft, holy, sacred. This inner fire: driving, focused, and divine. It knows very clearly what it is and what it wants. Ego gets in the way. Little ‘s’ self gets in the way. But ego can provide support, when it feels like playing along. We’ll all throw logs on that fire when it’s warmth feels so good. We’ll all throw fertilizer under that tree when it’s fruits are so sweet!
So why, even when the fruits of our work are sweet, why do we doubt ourselves?
That this time we won’t be loved. This time we will fail.
The guards at the gate of our mind cower, listening to a song that got played over and over – have ye but faith in ME then you might succeed. But WHO?! Goddamit!
Why, in all my years of school, of church, of being a valid citizen, did they never teach me to have faith in myself? Because, I was told, I am a sinner from the start, a miscreant in the making, a criminal because I chose to do things that they labeled crimes. And, thusly, I could never be trusted to make the right choice. After all, no one else trusts themselves to make the right choice.
When I gave up all that to go be an artist, the echoes remained. The driving passion behind my brush and in my actions pushed me into lovely, beautiful spaces. It brought me to epic peaks and cascades of wonder and sublime sensuality and they were all experiences that existed while holding a paintbrush, facing a canvas, pushing around that pigment suspended in polymer and, because I’d focused and focused and focused, and driven myself past every voice, and forced the most high conclusion, I found great light. And each piece has explored depths and risen to heights that I can only wonder at.
Self-doubt will challenge every path at every step of the way. My path is Painting. It is Making Art. When I step back and look at what I have created – a raw expression of myself – it is no wonder, I say, that I feel the barbs of criticism more than the salve of compliments. The salve is not necessary. I already feel good. The barbs however, they sting. And when I stand before my blank canvas or work on it while it’s in the throes of not-done-yet, those barbs pull a bit. But I pull against them. They tear out. I push further and find, again and again, that which I was aiming for and that much more death of little ‘s’ self.
Belief in yourself, in who you are, and in your deep raw talents that manifest themselves through that thing that is undoubtedly your Life’s Path, is what will drive you to fulfill your dreams and goals. This is not about ambition. Ambition is being rising above – it is about Self and Other. This is merely about Great Success. The Great Success is Life.
May you reach every Great Success.
May you achieve your Most Highest Goals.
May you experience Love without boundaries.
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