Month: August 2012

Sangfroid and Phlegm

For my friends Laura, Cyndee, Barbara, Liz, Ann, Gretchen and all the parents I’ll meet at Freshman Orientation:

As my youngest is about to go 10 hours away to college, I have had to work almost minute-to-minute on a stiff upper lip.  My ancestors were fiery Scots, so the saying “Stay Calm and Carry On” doesn’t resonate.  The only thing that keeps me from collapsing on the floor in a puddle is remembering my sweet grandmother dabbing her eyes two weeks before we returned to Bangladesh every home leave.  Those tears were heavy on all of us.  I’m sure Nana felt cleansed, but my poor Mom was dripping in her mother’s emotion.  It wasn’t fair and I’m trying hard not to do it to my beautiful and talented daughter as she starts another exciting part of her own journey.

So yesterday in Todd’s class, when the intention of equanimity came to me, I folded it at heart center.  I worked on keeping a drishti, equalizing my breath, staying in touch with my edge, dropping to my knees when I needed  to return to balance.  I left practice feeling joyful.

Equanimity is balance of mind; composure that is maintained under stress.  Other synonyms are sangfroid, implying an icy control of the emotions, and phlegm, implying a composure that hides apathy.  It is a careful balance, isn’t it?  To maintain composure but not to lose the compassion that makes us human.  The definition of equanimity carries with it a sense of a habit of mind, not a personality tic or flaw.

Yoga practice reminds us physically of balance, brushing away the thoughts that clutter a mind and make balance impossible.  Skin and bones are tools to reflection and perception, habits of mind and a habit of compassion for all, including ourselves. (This must be why this image came to me as I was recycling canvases.  The blobs of dried paint reminded me of flaws on skin and then the skin called for a…window? My concious mind didn’t know what my emotional body wanted me to understand.)

This week, as we enter another transition in our lives, one that seems less joyful than welcoming these beautiful children into our lives 18 years ago,Thich Nhat Hanh’s words will help us retain equanimity:

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby.  To suffer is not enough.  We must also be in touch with the wonders of life.  They are within us and all around us, everywhere, anytime.

On Being Precious or Being Precise

The Renwick Gallery has an amazing new exhibition of 40 artists under 40 years old who are changing the face of art and craft.  The work exhibited there is transformative for anyone who is interested in creativity, inspiration and the artistic process.  I marvelled at the concepts they played with in their work and level of precision and craft that each artist has achieved in his or her own piece.  See a slide show of their work here.

One of the most important lessons for me to learn and relearn as a recovering creative has been to be honest about being precious and being precise about my work.  I had a wonderful painting teacher at the Corcoran named Tom Xenakis who would stand behind me in a painting class and say (in a very unjudgemental way):  “You are being precious.” He didn’t mean cute or funny.  He meant that I was being fastidious and affected in my work.  It is a challenge about the practice of art.  Tom’s lesson has stayed with me, although it usually doesn’t come to me the moment I need it, before I have painted a canvas into a muddy mess.  Or when I look at something I’ve worked very hard on but it won’t sing.  There’s just paint, no heart.

Like all good art teachers, Tom taught working the entire canvas, leaving something and returning to it, trusting the process of making art.  In other words — get the hell out of your own way.  Let it flow.  Stop thinking so much.   Look, focus, see and paint.

The practice of mindfulness — of being in the moment and getting yourself out of the way — is important to painting, to yoga practice, to life.  Precision happens in mindful moments.  It is when we really see the shape of an eye — it isn’t shaped like an almond, the pupil isn’t really round, the iris catches the light here and darkens there.  In asana practice, precision happens when we can turn off the noise in our minds to tune into the sensations of our bodies, allowing us to take flight into bakasana or come up into our first headstand.  Indeed, mindfulness allows us to be precise with the people we love.  It allows us  look into their eyes and be present, to empathize, to listen and to love.

In Re-Entry I posted the painting of my husband’s hand.  I’ve added to the canvas a portrait of my daughter and the crook of his elbow, where she used to swing from as a toddler.  It is still unfinished, but I’m happy with it because I enjoyed every moment of the painting process.  I stopped being precious and just let the emotions carry me through.

Again I’ve learned the truth to the  Zen paradigm:  Stop thinking and talking about it and there is nothing that you will not be able to know.