However we approach our predicament we face a myriad of traps, evasions, and projections. It’s no different when we come to an opportunity to act within a practice. Except it is….
In a practice we interact with complexity outside the confusing complications that abound in our customary, conditioned state. Living inside our reactions it is difficult to see past the drama. After all, as we flail about we glimpse consequences, fatal consequences. This ramps up our fears and make us more brittle and unyielding. Hardly conducive to arriving at a breakthrough.
Within a practice we must still confront our reactions. The drama this unleashes can be intense. But, if we….
You see, at the heart of what makes a practice is a willingness to take an activity supremely seriously and at the same time see it as free of consequences.
This is where a concept like, “Art for Art’s sake!” gets its currency. Art’s famous uselessness…. The same thing applies to any practice. Practices exist in a space we have carved out of the rush of a life seemingly “coming at us.” In this space we are free, seemingly by fiat. We are free simply because we claim it, and, believe it. We believe that this space and its activities can stand outside of the precarious but seemingly impenetrable edifice of our conditioned life.
Within the space of a practice we cannot maintain a belief that we are held-back by some outside force. No one, nothing, but our own willingness has made us take up this practice. It holds to no “rule” that we have not wittingly or unwittingly let-in. The consequences of even the most rash and unmediated act are limited to the realm of the practice. We have established a free zone. If we still find ourselves un-free then it is our own doing.
Of course, as soon as we enter this space we do find ourselves mightily constrained! If we can “do anything!” then, why does it seem so hard to do anything? We’ve brought all of the conditioning in our regular lives with us into this space.
If we persist, we can discover that this amplification of our self-consciousness can actually begin to show us the workings of our conditioning. We begin to see behind the curtain. This awareness of how we are aware holds the seeds of a more fully developed proprioception.
Let’s look at how this comes into play as we confront a blank sheet of paper with a twig of charcoal in one hand – or one in each hand! If, as we stand there – whether for the first time or the five thousandth time, if we take a moment to observe our state we may find we are agitated. There is fear and desire coursing through us. We are excited.
This makes sense. After all, we stand before all of possibility. Who knows what might happen? We have yet to “make a mistake….”
What are we afraid of? It’s just a piece of paper. Sure we might spoil it, waste an hour…. We do these kinds of things, spoil materials and waste time, without batting an eye many times a day! Why should this instance bring us pause?
If we stay with our fear we may find that it populates the blank page, this scrap of a privileged visual field, with phantasms. Our minds rush ahead to be filled with everything that might go wrong. We flail between wrapping ourselves in poses of extreme confidence and abject paralysis. While it’s only in a movie that the drawing’s surface at this point actually begins to writhe with visions, we can begin to see how projection works.
Some of our fear and a large part of our excitement comes from a desire that may have been hidden before this moment. Somewhere behind all the prevarications, “Who would have thought it! I want to draw a masterpiece! Me!” We are confronted by a naked ambition. We feel the adrenaline rush of will, a will we thought was held in check, “I’m a modest person! I’m no Egotist!” We feel it rising inside us. We might blush. Or at least flush at the seductive nature of power suddenly at our fingertips.
You could say that none of this can survive the first marks we make! You could…, but quite often the fantasy persists. We find ourselves caught-up in an unfolding drama. It’s as though our will has found a way to flow out through our fingers and onto the paper. We are infatuated with what we’re making!
Or, we find ourselves tentative, and critical, trying to second guess how we might sneak around all these obstacles and get to that masterpiece anyway!
Years can go by. A lifetime spent without ever getting out of these traps. Everything that society has built-up around the practice of Art conspires to keep us from facing what it can actually be. We bring our prison of conditioning with us on this supposed “other path.”
The same kind of thing happens to the Religious. To those who dedicate themselves to any path guarded and channelized by some establishment of institutionalized belief. The tenuousness of the original impulse is confronted by rigidity and it is easy to confound this rigidity for… well, not truth exactly, but something that might stand in its place.
But each time we face a blank paper it offers us something very clean and very true. As soon as we mark it we have collapsed infinite possibility into an intractable fact. The drawing stops being possibly anything to being tentatively something. Something that is hard for us to recognize. Something hiding behind our projections of perfection or disappointment. Something that asks to be brought to life. Something that reaches back to us asking for our help in bringing it into being.
We just might find that what that paper offers us is a relationship.
The paper offers us its capacities: it is supremely sensitive to touch. It records the movement of our passage. It confines our field of observation onto its dimensions. It accepts our interactions with it and holds them suspended in time upon its surface. It is intractably physical. Its limits: brightness, ability to hold the mark. The absolute limits of how dark, how light, how much manipulation its surface can take before breaking down…. All of these capacities are there for us to see. They are available for us to interact with them. The paper is eloquent in so far as it is sensitive. Whatever its limitations it is not open to the manipulations of our will. It is without any will of its own. It accepts whatever we do do it. Yet it can appear willful, so long as we project the shadow of our own will upon it.
Reading its limitations as a barrier to the fulfillment of our desire to make a masterpiece, we blame our faults on it. We attack it in anger arising out of our reactions to our frustration. We find ourselves moving farther and farther from whatever idea we thought we had at the start, but we misunderstand this hint. This frustrates us further. We break against the paper’s intractability and react as if it was refusing us. Caught-up in this drama of our own making we won’t recognize that drama is all we can ever make “on our own!” Until we see this for ourselves we cannot enter into the offered relationship. We cannot see what can be done. Not by “ME!” But, out of the ebb and flow of interaction.
The paper’s capacities bring a simple charcoal drawing its potential. As we work within our practice we find ways to relate to these capacities instead of fighting them. In fits and starts we discover moments when we have recorded an actual relation instead of an attempted imposition upon its surface. We will find, if we remain open to it, that the paper’s supreme sensitivity is a challenge to develop our own. We discover moments of fluidity and grace that abide beyond the moment of creation and live on the sheet. We also, most likely, will destroy these budding developments as we fall into error and react to them instead of remaining responsive.
Response. Responsibility…. How do we untangle what these words actually mean from all of their confabulations?
Dialogue is a practice that begins as an interaction between and among people. We grapple with the same limitations and traps, and opportunities to get lost in misunderstanding and projection as in any other practice, but we do it together. A practice like drawing – and there are many others this would be true of, although few are as direct and transparent – opens us to the possibility of a dialogue, a relationship, that we enter individually.
The word practice has developed two distinct meanings. We tend to think of practicing as the alternative to doing. That when we practice we are simply repeating something over and over in a context where the results do not matter, “It’s only practice.”
In a true practice there is a sense of sanctuary. It’s not that the results don’t matter. We find simultaneously that the results matter tremendously while at the same time we have not risked life or limb. The rest of that common sense definition of practice does not apply. When we work within a practice we are confronted by the futility of mere repetition. As soon as we find we are, “Going through the motions.” We recognize that we have betrayed our practice. Betrayed ourselves. In this we discover a depth of seriousness that we bring to and find within our practice. A depth of seriousness, like all the other understandings we glean from our practice, that carries over into our lives. More than that. We discover that there is no boundary between practice and life. They interpenetrate.
We come face to face with another fact: Everything is in everything! We don’t just recognize this as a concept, an idea to be bandied about. We feel it as a fact. We discover that what our practice is all about is interacting with fact, perceiving fact, discovering fact, relating to fact…. We find that navigating within the realm of fact as it presents itself upon the paper’s surface we establish a relationship with what-is. We discover, not the projections of fear or desire, but the actual feel of our interactions with what is actually there before us. We learn what it is to act as opposed to flailing about amid the miasmas and traps brought about as we react blindly inside our conditioning.
How do we escape desire? We don’t. We discover that we don’t have to. We simply face it. Look at it. Look deeply and with nuance. We learn to understand the movement of desire and in so doing we dissolve it.
They simply are….