One way to define love is "sustained, compassionate attention". These words came from John Muir Laws, a naturalist, educator, and artist who inspires stewardship of the land by sharing his practice of nature sketching. When I read these words, I began to see the importance of my own art practice in developing sustained, compassionate attention for myself. I have noticed, in just a few years of deliberately making art daily, that my well of self-compassion has grown wider and deeper. And gradually, my capacity for compassion toward others -- even the ones it would be easy to judge or dismiss quickly -- has become more of a habit.
I have been teaching myself to make art via a consciously different process than the way I have learned most things in my life. My ways of learning early in life were shaped by classical rules of aesthetics, systems of academic achievement, and the belief that receiving criticism was the way to develop resilience and mastery. None of these is either right or wrong. But, just as it is impossible for a fish to know what water is until it has attempted to live on land, it is impossible to notice that there is an "other way" until that other way is revealed and acknowledged through contrast in experience.
Many of you have heard or read my signature story of being told to "Play the wrong note", at a moment in my life when I was very invested in playing all the right notes, literally and metaphorically. Some of you may have been shocked and appalled by my willingness to embrace and challenge the idea of "wrongness" and proceed to unlearn what I had systematically been trained to do for so long.
Yet the more I live in commitment to this path -- my particular path -- of discovery and creative expansion, the more trust I feel in following my own truth. The truth that is not a concept, thought, or belief, but a feeling of inner peace, still and silent in the center of my being, known only to me.
When I was told, "Play the wrong note", it was an invitation to pay attention, to linger awhile with sustained compassion for and interest in these so-called "wrong" notes. To observe and listen, not only to the sounds themselves, but to my own experience of receiving these sounds. To ask, "What is the nature of my reaction to what I consider wrongness?"
That moment, and everything about those four little words, have remained with me like a Zen koan, tickling my brain like a puzzle whose solution still eludes me. And upon reading John Muir Laws' comments on the value of observation (asking) versus getting it right (answering), and falling in love by observing deeply, another door opened inside me.
Consider the possibility that the depth of compassion we have to give is equal to the depth of our own self-compassion. Imagine that we can only extend to others the level of understanding we have available to us. As we cultivate, grow, and expand in self-understanding, we can also cultivate, grow, and expand our capacity to understand others at a level deeper than pity, categorization, or labeling.
The audacity of the dare to "Play the wrong note" was an invitation pointing directly to the door of self-compassion. It was a suggestion not only to be willing to experiment with loving a sound I had previously assigned judgment to and trained myself to avoid, but to love myself as I expanded my capacity to accept more of the world's nuances into my field of attention.
Learning to walk toward and through the door of so-called failure was a necessary threshold for me to cross as I deepened my capacity to love. Art was one new territory where I could venture safely without preconceived identities and learn - through daily deliberate practice - to love everything I create, and experiment with the attitude that, "There are no wrong notes. Only different choices."
I have come to see love as not an opinion or a preference. Love is born in the application of sustained, compassionate attention. In the case of my art, applying compassion to my art, as I look outward at my creations, is simultaneously applying compassion to my creator self.
As long as I remain free of ideas of "right" and "wrong" in my art, each gesture is an inquiry, an invitation, and a dare to love myself more deeply. Each blank page is another practice in seeing what comes to me and through me, and receiving it with my full attention.
I am enjoying this time of year-end reflections and visioning for the new year. I sincerely thank each of you who have read this newsletter, attended a class, purchased art, or listened to my music during the past year. Your sustained, compassionate attention has been received with great appreciation!
Here are three creative ways to reflect on your own past year:
1. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Get a pen or pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Start writing, moving your hand across the page, without editing or correcting any mistakes. Lose control. Keep your hand moving and don't stop until the timer goes off. This is a Natalie Goldberg technique, and I've experienced great results myself and with clients using it. Try it with the following prompts, related to your 2015. "I remember...", "I celebrate...", and "I acknowledge...". Start your writing with any of these prompts and see where your hand takes you! If you get stuck, go back and write one of the prompts again and again until something else comes out of your hand.
2. Get a set of colored markers, crayons, or pencils, and a large blank sheet of paper. Make a series of "blobs" -- of any shape -- all over the paper. Don't think too much (or at all!) about this. Just let any shapes to appear on the page in any colors. Now take some deep breaths, close your eyes, and reflect upon your entire year, month by month. Remember, celebrate, acknowledge. Notice what comes into your sustained, compassionate attention related to 2015. When you have reviewed the entire year, open your eyes and start making marks on your paper. You can write, scribble, draw, doodle, or make more shapes on top of the ones already there. Give yourself at least 10 minutes for this exercise...more if you're really having fun!
3. Make a collage. Get some inspiring magazines (try asking if any of your neighbors is getting rid of old issues of colorful magazines). You can start either with a blank piece of posterboard OR the paper from exercise #2 above (for extra fun!). Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes, reflecting on your 2015. Notice what you remember, celebrate, and acknowledge. When you open your eyes, grab the first magazine you see and start tearing out any pages that contain anything that catches your attention. You are in a state of sustained, compassionate attention -- without reading the articles or ads in the magazines! Give yourself 10 minutes MAXIMUM to tear out pages. Now get some scissors and a glue stick or rubber cement. Start cutting out the images you want to use in your collage. Arrange them on your posterboard and attach them with the glue. Then, take a step back and look. What do you see? What do you hear? If this image had a story for you, what would it be? Write it down. Sing it! Dance it!
Take a photo of what you create. Share your results in the comments below!
Have you found your own practice of applying sustained, compassionate attention to yourself and your surroundings? I'd love to hear about it!
You can also participate in my live event, New Year New Vision PLAYshop, on January 23, 2016, 1pm to 4pm, at New Leaf Community Classroom, Half Moon Bay, California. You'll be guided through a visualization and imagination activation process, and create your very own ARTifact of your journey. No prior experience necessary! Registration details here.