Going Slow to Flow

The other day my calligraphy teacher took me to her teachers class room for my lesson.  While I was painting he quietly commented to her in Chinese that I was painting too fast.

Initially I resented his observation but kept it to myself. After class I thought about what he said. I also thought about how I’d been doing Tai Ji recently; very slow, very focused, pausing at points to feel my center and my connection with the earth, checking to see how they were aligned, taking the time to organize my whole body in whatever posture or action I was in at the time. Then thinking back to before that calligraphy class, I’d been a bit put out by a girl I thought had given me a P.T.A.

(“Permission To Approach…” It’s actually  a reference to a line from an Iain M. Banks novel called “Matter”, where a ship’s Avatar uses a signal laser in his eye to signal to another culture agent requesting permission to open communications. A very cool book though a little sad at the end as most of his books can be but none the less they have some sort of meatiness that is really nice to sink your teeth into. One thing, take the time to read them slowly. You need to read his books slowly, especially near the end, to allow his text to sink in. The easy tendency is to read too fast and then you miss it.)

I thought she’d given me an indication of interest and perhaps even an invitation but then she seemingly blew me off, or I was just being too sensitive.

Anyway, I was in a mood while painting and was trying to hide from it by painting fast, and without feeling.

There are times when I can paint fast and with feeling. This wasn’t one of them. I was painting fast but not feeling the brush and not focusing on what I was doing.

Moving slowly we have to notice what we are doing and what we are working with. In the case of using a brush I could focus on feeling each brush stroke from start to finish and also on feeling where to place each subsequent brush stroke.Moving slowly, painting slowly, it is easy to make our body and mind act like one so that our body does exactly what our mind asks it to and our mind can sense exactly what our body can do.

Moving slowly we move out of our head and into the world around us. We use our senses and as a result are no longer thinking. It’s a good way of forgetting about the things that bother us. And if we are having difficulty using our senses or controlling what we are doing, like when cleaning we can focus on little bits at a time, and repeat those little bits until we get it right-like vacuuming the same piece of run over and over again to get that one annoying piece of lint…
We just may find that in the process we get into a sort of flow. The we know we are present in what we are trying to do.

The Basics-How Much Practice is Enough?

A friend came over for a visit last night and showed me some brush painting techniques he’d learned from his teacher. We varied between using brushes and bits of newspaper but most importantly (and perhaps the most fun) is that we freed ourselves from style and convention. He’s had more practice than I have but we both played at expressing ourselves freely.

The day before I’d been running for about the third time in a year. I used to run regularly both while I was in the army and afterwards during university and after. I did have dreams of running a marathon but after a half marathon and another run with a lot of fun hills my knee had packed it in. And so for the next 10 years I focused on learning my body through yoga and later tai ji.

Getting back to running has been a chore in part because I’ve had no where nice to run. And then I did find someplace nice to run and so I started in on what worked before, running at a slow pace so that my heart rate stayed within the aerobic range.

Running like an old man I thought back to times when I’d been cross country skiing with friends. The first few outings would be torture and then all of a sudden, after plenty of rests, I’d find I was flying on my skii’s with hardly any effort. Even going up hills (and their are lots of hills in Gatineu Park outside of Ottawa in Canada, I felt like I was flying, to the point that i was easily catching up to and even in places leading friends who had stacks more experience than I did.

I wondered about all the work I’d been doing learning to feel my body and control it. I really wanted to feel like I was flying. Fuck the heart rate. I focused on feeling my body while I was running. Sure I’d run for a little then slow down but at least I was running the way I wanted to. And then my knee flared up and so running fast I focused on my hip, thigh and shin and on positioning them so that my knee felt alright. It worked. For each stride, I felt and positioned my leg so that I could use my whole leg to drive me forwards simply by aligning the bones with the force of what I was doing. Rather than muscling each stride I tried to feel it.

The next day I did something similar while swimming. Most of my time at the pool of late has been devoted to providing an environment for my daughter to get comfortable in water. It’s been about her instead of me…and so yesterday I got to do something for me. simply breast stroke with my head under water most of the way doing a sort of “hold your breath” pranayama while seeing how relaxed I could stay as I approached my breath holding limit.

Using my legs like a frog I gauged the quality of each “kick” by noticing the pool tiles passing below me. I would only kick when I stopped moving forwards and when I did kick I tried to feel my legs as I did so, again using the least amount of energy possible, keeping my legs soft and flexible, as much like the fins of a fish as possible. I noticed things like the positions of my hands up ahead of me, fingers together to reduce drag and while looking forwards pressing my arms bones up to smooth the profile of my head and arms. I felt myself “immersed” in the moment.

Later on that day, after our calligraphy fun and games my friend and I went out for a beer to discuss things like basics. We both agreed that one of the things that allowed us to express ourselves so freely with brush and ink was the practice we’d put into staying within the limits. For me that meant learning characters to the point I could do them without thinking, continually holding the brush upright while noticing my connection with the brush and trying to see everything-be open while I was painting.
With learning the body, I felt that learning the basics enable me to get back to running and swimming with hardly any problems. I thought and still believe that there are body basics that we can learn and practice that can help us in anything that we do that relates to the body, whether it is painting, running, riding a bike or even drinking beer….

So how much practice is enough?

It depends on what we are trying to do. If we find ourselves practicing and doing nothing else, least of all expressing ourselves in what we are practicing for, then perhaps it is time to take a break from practice.

How much practice is enough, it depends on what you are practicing for.

As for me, I wanted to express myself freely with a brush and with my body. I’m not going to stop practicing the basics but I am going to make more time to do what I really want to do, paint freely and express my self.

How does this relate to foundation? Practice is the foundation based upon which we can express ourselves freely, beautifully and meaningfully.

Watching Art and Becoming It

Art and Plumbing-You do art when you make change that matters, and do it via a connection with an individual. A great waitress or conductor or politician can make art. So can David, who cleans the tables at Dean and Deluca. Art isn’t the job, it’s the attitude you bring to the job and work you do when you’re there.

How do we become art, how do we do art?
in a chinese poem called ascending the stork pagoda, the first image is of the sun resting on the mountains exhausted after the end of a long day. In doing what it does the sun creates an image of beauty at the end of the day. And perhaps it can rest for awhile having enjoyed its labors so that it can continue the next day…
The next line is of river waters exhausting themselves into the sea. Again a long journey has been completed and once a part of the ocean, drops of water can evaporate to fall again on high to experience the river bed again.
In striving, exhausting themselves and in doing what they do the sun and the river become part of a beautiful scene. The mountains and ocean add to the beauty.
The poet then talks of himself wanting to see just a little bit more, to exhaust his eyes by seeing as far as he can see. And so he climbs one more set of stairs to the next level so he can see just a little bit farther still.
How do we become art, how do we become beautiful?
By being present in what we are doing whether it is climbing a set of stairs or painting chinese characters or doing a yoga pose or doing the dishes. We can also be present by focusing on who we are with.
We can also take part in art by observing the work of others as it is in progress.

白日依山盡
黃河入海流
欲窮千里目
更上一層樓
white sun supported by mountains, exhausted
river into the sea flow,
straining eyes to see 1000 miles
go up one more story