The toad that croaks "No!"

The toad that croaks "No!"

My reflections on art at Gayles

This was the second of our Mindsprings summer retreats exploring the overlap of marking-marking and meditating.

Isobel, my friend and co-facilitator, makes it very clear that there is a distinction between making marks and making Art.

So often, the ‘idea’ of Art is one of perfection, of perfect versimilitude, of accurate draughtmanship and photographic realism. Schooling, cultural framing and internal critics all gather round us as we sit infront of that white expanse of paper, expecting nothing less than Rembrandt even if the last time we picked up a crayon was back in Primary school. The idea of Art gets in the way of the experience of mark making.

Picking up a finger full of mud and smearing it across a piece of cardboard may not be Rembrandt but it is fun. It is - on some very important level, - meaningful. The meaning, I discovered, comes not from the end product but the process of overriding our ‘better judgment’ (which is often our ‘worst critic’ in intellectual drag) and saying “Screw it”, I am going to make my mark.

In tiny ways, each time the ten of us picked up a pastel or a piece of charcoal in the Cow Shed at Gayles and scribbled and scratched and scrubbed our movements onto the white space, we were overcoming the demon that keeps us all unhappy: the Ego.

From a Buddhist point of view, all our suffering comes from the dictatorial, controlling and judgemental qualities of the ego (which on closer meditative inspection is just a habit of mind, layered down over decades of repetition). When I tell myself “I can’t draw”,there is absolutely no inherent truth in the statement. Of course you can draw. Of course, with some practice and abandon, you can get better and more confident. Of course, if your really go for it you can draw beautifully. But believing the toad in your mind that croaks “No” is a sure fire way of never doing anything.

What applies to making a delirious purple squiggle on a vast expanse of yellow sugar paper, applies equally to the whole business of being alive. “I can’t speak languages.” “I can’t meet anyone nice”, “I’m no good at relationships”, “My mind is too busy to meditate”, “Ha! I’ll never be enlightened”. All of these statements have the same toad-like quality that just prohibits life unfolding as it should - relatively unimpeded.

Of course, some self-awareness is necessary. (In essence, meditation is form of ego work...) but it’s extremes of puritanical, joyless, self-hating, face-stamping meaness that makes up much of our self-talk that requires conscious softening.

It was so beautiful over the course of the week to see how the parallel processes of meditating and mark-making echoed and re-inforced one another. Spending more and more time in the experience of the breathing body rather than the thinking mind gave us some space to manoevre when it came to picking up the charcoal. Overcoming, each day, our draconian inner critics and just mucking around with colours and ink and crayons allowed for a more free and playful approach to the meditation practices which also fall foul of the “I can’t do that” voice in our head.