Oil on board 2013 16″ x 20″
Someone once told me that my past was my greatest asset. I took it as a prompt to value my experiences in their ability to give clues on the path of transformation. That said, I hated the saying for a long time. There were plenty of experiences I avoided revisiting, and many things about my past that seemed unfair or too difficult to ever expect to find meaning within. Over time, and with the help of this painting series exploration, I have found my past to be an exceptional—although tough and scrupulous—teacher. The pains of looking back and looking inward were sometimes excruciating, so I painted this piece as an homage to faith—a reminder that I would be OK, no matter what I uncovered in this examination.
My animals are inspired by the archetypes of various religions and cultures, and this one is no exception. I chose the sheep, one of the world’s most obvious symbols of faith, as expressed in Christianity. (For those unfamiliar with this symbolism, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who watches over his flock.) I adorned my sheep-girl in a dress I would have loved when I was a kid. The luxury of blue velvet and the high collar give it a Sunday-going-to-meeting feeling. I drew inspiration for the background from some of the morning walks I take on local public paths near my home. Along the trails sunlight pours through trees to cast shadows on green lawns, which can’t help but start my day with a welcoming greeting. Corny, but heavenly.
In my sheep’s hand is a bloody Band-aid, an emblem of childhood wounds, which she holds almost timidly. This small thing near the bottom of the painting, away from the usual focal center of attention mirrored my trepidation at going forward with this painting/writing project, knowing that my shadow side, my past, my secrets, my mistakes, my doubts, and my blindness would be under the microscope.
This piece embodies an offering. I’m offering myself—the good, bad, and whatever— to my own scrutiny, to whoever wanted to look or listen, to God, to nobody. I didn’t feel proud or brave, just willing.
In this post, a long one, I’ll digress from my usual format, which is to describe the mind state that corresponds with each painting. Here I am responding to a young friend who asked, “Okay, I like to read about all the pieces of the process, but can you sum up the whole path at once?” This is the first of a two part answer to her request.
The paintings and words did not come about in a step-by-step order, so the essays aren’t presented in a linear, chronological structure. I have found the process of growing in awareness to be mysterious in its unfolding. I’ve uncovered no time schedule or predictable template in which my self-exploration uncoils into works of art. Many times my students will ask me what I’m working on, what it means, or why I’ve chosen the emblems I have. My answer is often, I don’t know yet. I am only sure that the overall principles that I access and express are best dealt with if I give way to their unpredictable rhythms. Paradoxically, the more I’ve succumbed to this apparent randomness, the more ordered it all feels.
In other words, the essays are more like a scrapbook than a field guide. But along the way I couldn’t help but see patterns emerge out of the discoveries. The work was never meant to manifest as directions or instructions, but for continuity I’ve laid out here some of the principles that have come into view as being pivotal to the design of self-inquiry. In attempting to encapsulate the overall movement of my investigations, I’ve felt humbled by how difficult it is to make sweeping statements about the course of transformation. I can only say for sure that this path has felt magical and almost supernatural.
My sheep painting is about faith, so I thought it appropriate to use it as the avatar to represent my overall wanderings. The categories as broken down below do not necessarily follow the order I’ve presented here.
A desire to look inward starts with curiosity. People become curious in different ways, whether with a mild inquisitiveness that inspires an intention to navigate life more gracefully, or an analytical fascination fueled by life’s biggest questions. Other people start with an investigation of an individual situation and find they’ve tampered with a psychological Pandora’s Box. Some begin an inner journey after being inspired by great sages or wise teachers.
My original curiosity began with pain. Lots of it. I became a seeker when I knew that life should feel better much than it did. As my curiosity led to widening understanding and less pain, I became even more curious. It’s been growing ever since.
Some of my painting essays talk about surrender. I am sure this is the place to start once curiosity has taken hold. At that point I must admit that the path I’ve been on so far, my narratives about how things are, my attempts to fix things up to this point, have gotten me exactly where I am: confused and unsatisfied. I must give up the idea that I have the power to change or affect a particular situation or person or mind state. This seems completely counterintuitive, since changing the situation is exactly what I want. What I’m actually surrendering is my worn out, lonely, ill-educated approaches to challenges that always end in a dead end. The hard part is that I have invested in these avenues for so long that they seem like they are my intellect, my logic, my passion. They seem like they are me.
It feels defeating and scary to give up on the dearly held idea that I will get things under control. It goes against the way I was taught to steer my way through life. Give up? That’s for losers. Ultimately, I had to become fed up with the results I encountered from all my ferocious efforts. Surrender meant entering a groundless unknown, even when I proceeded with baby steps. The only certainly to be had was the knowledge that my previous living skills were failing at getting me healthy or happy. I would later realize that my old means of navigation were like chronic lies. They were constructed stories, forged in early childhood and hammered into my being over years of not knowing they could be questioned or doubted. Surrender meant they were not to be trusted anymore.
I didn’t know much about my stories when I first surrendered. All I could comprehend was that I was tired of trying. Much less than fear, I felt relief. No matter what lay ahead, at least I was done wasting energy on a lost cause.
There is an empty, open space available when one surrenders. If I’m not relying on my old sense of self-reliance, what do I rely on? I’ve not found an answer to this question that doesn’t involve getting help. There is no being truly happy and whole as a human without it.
The bottom line is that this can’t be done alone. If I tried to change myself by myself I’d have one brain at my disposable—the one that got me confused in the first place. If I am truly ready to see differently, I need to discard the ineffective notions that made me blind. I’ll need guidance, encouragement, support and validation, all given to me with a miraculous amount of patience. These things can be found. I like the saying, Seek and Ye Shall Find, because it actually works. There are people, books, groups, places, websites, and organizations devoted to supporting the need for connection, comfort, and direction. I may run into some false starts or dead ends, but if I remain curious and surrendered my diligence will lead to my tribe. Good guides won’t always seem like saints, but the path they illuminate will lead to results.
And then there’s another kind of help that is even more important. It involves reaching into the subtle world. Our human existence is multi-layered, and our physical and mental aspects are not the complete picture. At whatever pace I’m guided to open up, I’ve had to clear away the obstructions that block me from an inner light, a God, a basic goodness, a power that I lack as an individual human. The ways that people define and conceptualize this power is diverse. The more open I am to spiritual help, the faster, smoother, deeper, and more firmly grounded my progress into self-honesty and recovery is.
Without a community and a higher power I’m not just a boat without a rudder, I am a boat without sails, navigation tools, radio communication, other sailors, or a life jacket. (The more nautically-inclined can add to this list.)
I must acknowledge, though, that even before I sought help I was being guided and tended by a shepherd. As lost as I felt, I can look back and see the people and happenings that had my best interests in mind. My blindness borne of self-sufficiency blocked my access to recognizing, utilizing, and being grateful for that help.
Any good helper will point me toward my first task, to start paying attention to myself. As I develop my abilities at in-the-moment noticing, I’ll start to have insights. What I find will require courage. My investigations will reveal to me how and why the lies I’ve nurtured and lived by are detrimental. Waking up from a sleep of ignorance can be embarrassing and shocking. I’ve had several instances of starting a painting about a particular trait with shuddersome dread. I don’t feel brave as I trudge forward. I’ve just developed a lower pain tolerance for the familiar misery that continues if I don’t pull out the gunk and look at it.
What will I see? First I’ll see the ways I hide: the ineffective habits, behaviors and attitudes that keep me in denial. These addictions or cover-up skills cloak deeper, more painful secrets, so it can take time to break up their hold on me. They’ve been nurtured over time to mask hurts that couldn’t be faced earlier, and I will have formed an attachment to their ability to keep that pain at bay. As soon as I’ve become aware of my habit, I will have to become more familiar with it, admit to it, and start accepting it before the secrets it disguises will be revealed.
Once the dismantling of my old habits begins (simply recognizing it gets it started) I will start to feel the emotions that those fixations concealed. This part of the process will make me wonder why I decided to poke a skunk. I entered the arena to feel better. A can labeled worms is one thing, but opening it to find Whoop Ass is another. This is why fellow travelers, especially ones with more experience than me, are so important. When I am waking up to piercing, newly exposed emotions and memories, it makes a world of difference to see the face of someone nodding with recognition, understanding, and reassurance. That is the face of faith, a living example that assures me the agony I’ve experienced has happened to others, and it can be overcome. There’s nothing like it for soothing the most difficult parts of the road.
As I move forward I’ve found that curiosity, surrender, help, and understanding start to make little loops. As I said, they don’t necessary go in order, but they are involved in a repetitive process that make up a very good habit in which I continue to look within, give up my self-reliance, and gain wisdom. It takes time to get used to—because it entails getting knocked down and getting back up again—but it builds pretty much every good quality I desire: equanimity, self-possession, clarity, gratitude, resilience, courage…all good skills for maneuvering in life. I’ll need them for what comes next.
It feels triumphant to gain ground and see progress. At that point I’ll start to think I’m nailing it, that I’ve finally found answers and solutions. Just when I’m polishing my knuckles and beaming, I’ll hit a major roadblock. I will come to recognize how ingrained and pervasive certain patterns are, and how ineffective I am at stopping myself from doing anything about it. A whole lot of discomfort happens here. This calls for a much deeper level of surrender, one that stretches far beyond what I think I’m capable of. Which is the point, because giving it my very best doesn’t even come close to the superhuman work it takes to dismantle the warped energies that are embedded and imprinted in my mind and heart. This work is for a higher power. It’s not that I’m more screwed up than the rest of the crew, but that I’m human, and we don’t get out of childhood in one glistening piece. I’ll be asked to step back and watch while this higher power alchemically remodels my insides, and in the meantime I’ll be acting and thinking in the same old maddening ways, sure that I’m one big walking mistake. I’ve tended not to feel any relief from this “dark night of the soul” until I start to give up and accept myself, warts and all.
If anyone has found a quicker way to surrender during this formidable part of the odyssey, I commend them. I might be a stubborn case, but I know I only gave up when I got supremely tuckered out. I had to see myself with all my failings in their full glory but be so tired of fighting that I just let them be. I looked my greed and hatred and controlling in the face. I pulled up a chair and patted it and said, have a seat for as long as you like. I’ve got nothing else I can do.
This is a game of take-away. I don’t need to add anything wonderful or good to myself for self-improvement. I don’t need to fix myself, morph into something else, or bring in a new, better attitude. If I let go of my affixation to the tricky lies that taunt me, there will be a clear, wholehearted person left. What I came here needing, I came here with, it’s been said. I find myself feeling, acting, and thinking better without being able to give myself credit for it. Something happens to me in this process, instead of me making something happen.
I may have mentioned dependence on a higher power as an ingredient in the work, but as I’ve grown I’ve become sure that it is the work. (I’m leaving out concepts and definitions because the arguments start there.) Cultivating this essential connection will be the answer to every question and the solution to every problem. I know people who have targeted their recovery by solely focusing on God through meditation or prayer and have healed and flourished. That wasn’t my path; I needed baby steps for a long time before I could dedicate myself to a regular conscious correspondence with Oneness. I’ve outlined the baby steps above.
I sometimes say that I my failings never really go away, that I’ve just learn to put up with them. Actually, my faults do lessen, but it’s more important that I am not hard on myself when I fall back on them. They tend not to escalate because I catch them quicker, and now know they can’t damage me. My efforts at befriending them through familiarity and continued attention have subdued their domination.
My acceptance of my own weaknesses naturally spills onto others. I am better at letting others have their own inadequacies. If I do find myself giving someone grief in my mind, I can usually turn my attention inwards and see that they are triggering my own issues. I’m not pretending out loud or to myself that I’m an ace at this. Rather than try to force niceness, I seem to do my best if I focus on accepting myself, and watch the correlating benefit of being more approving and patient with others.
Do No Harm
As I grow, my mind-rubble will be removed, transformed, or just tolerated, giving me more energy to focus on thriving and being a contributor. Newfound freedom can be bewildering, and my direction or sense of purpose will unfold in it’s own time. In the meantime, instead of concentrating on saving the world or being impeccable, I need to proceed with gentle expectations of myself. Do No Harm, the rallying call for doctors and Buddhists, is a favorite of mine. I can do this! I chafe when I see lists of how to comport oneself like a do-gooder perfectionist. Do No Harm keeps the bar at a reasonable height, and is easy to assess at the end of the day. My ego may sneak in some unwholesome motives that slip by unawares, but continued diligence on the path will catch them at some point. My friends can help with that.
After repeatedly engaging in this process I will have learned to cultivate “courageous hospitality” for my setbacks and pain, as they spur me on to deeper faith, knowledge, and health. I’ve gotten to the point where feeling uncomfortable is just a cue that a part of me wants to be seen. I know the process of looking at it might be painful, but it’s automatic that the rewards will follow.
To be continued. Stay tuned.