On Saturday night, I went to hear a classical music performance in a church nearby. As the tones of clavichord and violin filled the old stone building, my heart rose with the brimming notes, and I thought, “This feels like refuge.” It’s not at all the traditional triple gem of the Buddhist refuge, but somewhere in the music I felt the fullness and emptiness of all phenomena and the confirmation that it is possible to reach an understanding of this paradox.
A few days earlier I sat on a park bench in Montignac and let the sun burnish my pigment cells while I watched the river carry algae, reflections, and city sewage down the canal. These are not any formal aspects of Tibetan Buddhism—not golden statues or practice texts or saffron-filled bowls of offerings, but they are a kind of beauty that resonates and lets me consider that what I experience and how I experience is acceptable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about creation lately. Snippets from my field notes: “I have this image of a canvas propped on an easel in the old, abandoned caravan at the bottom of the village. I think if I started to paint again, I would cry. I could cry for months.” And later, “Art is just a physical representation of what feels like a kind of courage. The courage to let life happen to me. The willingness to feel, to pay attention to both fear and anticipation, and to make choices that take the moment-by-moment expression of these emotions into account.”
I had a meeting this week with two of the center’s teachers. They check in with us once in a while to see how our “spiritual life” is going and make sure we’re not losing our marbles, tucked away as we are, at a Buddhist center in the countryside. This was the post-Nepal follow-up. After you travel a few thousand kilometers to watch your teacher’s body go up in billowing smoke and then come back to everyday life, how do you feel?
I didn’t expect it, but the thing I feel most, besides lost and tired and time-warped, is that I should listen to the rising currents inside that tell me to make things. I tried to explain to my interlocutors how art is valid and valuable and helps makes sense of things and how I might be good at it and how it might be helpful to others and so it’s permissible to spend time doing it. And the first one said, “You don’t have to justify to us the value of art. It’s just one of many means of applying the teachings.” And the other said, “Beware of doing something simply because you’re capable or talented. At a certain point, I realized I had useful skills in a few different fields, and it was important to choose what to pursue based on what led me in the right direction.”
If everyone else is already convinced, then who the heck am I fighting with? Myself, mostly, and I guess to some extent logistics. I’m fighting with a lifetime of imprinted contradictions about the fact of making things. The idea that being an artist is both wildly egotistical and utterly frivolous. That creation is either a deep responsibility or a total flight of fancy. That art can change the world or has no effect whatever. Wherever I turn, everything matters and it’s all a BIG DEAL. Which often makes it all too much to take on.
But all of the anxiety around the idea of being an artist is mainly static. It is an aside to the fact that the act of making things is a way to witness. That moments of creation are like giving birth; we become a channel to bring something into this world, and in that action there is no space for judgment or manipulation. Wisdom develops through stable observation, and art is a way to observe.
I think—I hope, I’m making wishes—that as I learn to understand this, I can develop creative habits free from the background stories, and the space to create will arise naturally. I am trying to let the path become clear.