There was a lovely moment this Sunday morning where I was sitting in a room full of art – paintings hanging from the rafters, portraits stacked up against the wall, charcoal sketches on the floor – and looking around at the 15 people who had been working for the previous four days to make it. Everyone was beavering away, bantering with one another or beaming. And I thought: Ah! we made this happen.
A year previously, in a tea break during the last Gayles summer retreat, Isobel Dutton, a wonderful art teacher who’d been on the course learning to meditate, mentioned how nice it would be to combine mindfulness and drawing. We both fired up at the idea and 12 months later and a very little logistical juggling here we were: running the first Mindsprings course to combine creativity and meditation.
I suspect everyone got something quite different from the four and half days in the blistering August heat, in amongst the chalky downloads of the Seven Sisters park, but several things crowded into my awareness as I sketched and inked my way through the retreat.
First, and very practically, it was really inspiring to facilitate with another person. I was looking after the meditation side of things. Isobel guided us through the various exercises designed to free up our artistic abilities. To be able to participate and be a beginner (a real beginner!) was so refreshing. As was the chance to admire another teacher’s skill.
Isobel brought a very gentle and patient energy to some quite challenging exercises. It takes a certain charm to persuade people to draw the energetic interior of their bodies, or draw the sounds around them, or draw a compost heap without looking at the paper. But we ended up doing all these things and Isobel, smilingly, negotiated all our tantrums and refusals to move our hands and make marks.
This was the other strong insight. The struggles we have about ‘drawing’ are actually the same as the struggles we have about ‘living’: “I’m no good at this”, “other people will laugh” or “i’m really good at this but other people are spoiling it”. And while meditation, when it’s done well, aims to relax our habitual tensions around life, very often the process of meditation is so internal and so elusive, that we manage to covertly squish the energy of life without ever being aware we’re doing it.
However, the physical act of drawing on a piece of paper puts all our frailty and our lapses out into public space. The concrete trace of the process remain for us and other to see. And thus the whole mechanism of the self-judging that short-circuits our ability to act and be fully in the world, becomes visible.
Doing an exercise where we sit on either side of a piece of paper and take turns to paint or draw on a communal canvas, we become visibly aware of so much: we can’t not draw because our partner is waiting for us; when we do draw, we have to draw in full awareness of being watched; then we have to look on in horror as our partner draws all over our lovely brush strokes; we have to then move on on let someone else take ownership of our work entirely.
I have often taught about the give-and-take of human relationships – about covert territoriality, unconscious sabotage and protection – but rarely have i seen it so delightful displayed and disarmed as when we ‘collaboratively’ drew a long roll of lining paper stretched down the centre of the room.
Interesting, the meditation that I was inspired to teach around the art was quite provoking too. For a room full of mostly beginners, people rose to the challenge of breathing 10 metres down in to the earth or breathing along the floor of the nasal cavity with the same aplomb as they drew the play of flames from a candle or sketched a hedgerow using a stick and blackberry juice. It seems creativity is sorely needed when we meditate.
I have practiced for more than 16 years in various traditions and I have often fallen foul of a stagnation or rigidity creeping into my practice. Unconsciously I try to replicate old ‘good’ sits or I might become secretly doctrinaire and superstitious about doing anything ‘new’. The gutsy disregard for ‘the known’ that art encourages (or rather, that Isobel encourages) is much needed in the way meditation is taught and practiced.
That is, in part, why I love Reggie’s embodied meditation. There are so many places where you have to just take a leap in the dark, even if your logical mind is screaming “this is bullshit”. And the payoff can be amazing. My rigid and habituated mind baulked completely at the notion of dropping down into the Earth, opening the back of the body and breathing up the energy from 10 miles below me. But if I hadn’t had the chutzpah to just do it and see, then the whole benefit of the somatic path would have not opened up to me.
The same chutzpah makes us pick up a piece of charcoal and make a big, black, sooty mark on a piece of pristine paper. And the more that we do that, the easier it is generally, to make a big mark.
Reggie is always emphasising that the purpose of meditation is to allow Life (with a capital L) to flow forth and be. That is, in itself, a creative act of trust. There were so many moments – sitting next to a elderberry hedge, staring at bonfire, drawing your body inside-out – where time seemed to warp and only the process of getting things down on the page really mattered. There was very little self-judgement but a whole string of surprises, as mark after mark appeared. It wasn’t quite an altered state but it definitely was a heightened one.
And this again counterpoints the meditation. When we practice, we are not trying to get out of our lives and into an alternative reality. We are trying to key into the ‘wonders of the vajra world’ (as the Dharma Ocean chant book has it). Beyond the sludgy grey fog of our habitual projections and ideas about the world is a bright, glistening, unbelievably vital world that stretches out to infinity in all directions. And that’s what opens up to us when we are meditating or, indeed drawing, well. Maybe glimpses, but they’re enough to spur us on. We know down in our bones that we’re going the right way. That makes it so much easier to dare further and keep on putting our sitting-bones on the cushion or opening our sketch pad and draw.