Month: September 2012

Moments of incompetence

Dr. Lovett Weems told this story in his lazy Mississippi drawl:

A preaching professor at a seminary answered the phone late one night to hear one of his recent graduates in what could only be described as a panic.  The graduate explained that he had to prepare for a funeral the next day and needed help.  “I’m happy to help,” the professor explained, “but you learned this just last month.”  Instead of launching into the how-tos, the professor referred his student to the syllabus and to the scripture that might be helpful, hoping to encourage his student.  After he spoke, there was silence.  And then a wail at the end of the other line:  ” But you don’t understand!  This guy’s really dead!”

Dr. Weems explained that real learning happened in these moments of sheer incompetence. I guess I should be thankful that I keep finding myself in these moments, but right now it would be really nice to feel competent.

One way I’m feeling incompetent today is that I made the decision to reuse canvases that the art therapist at Iona was throwing away because they had huge acrylic splotches all over them.  I decided these would be just the thing to help me get over the blank canvas issues I was having at the time. The last two posts contain examples of the sense of freedom I felt at one time, splotches and all.  But the acrylic is beginning to be really annoying.  It is hard to draw a straight line.  The perspective in the Joy in Labor post was…labored.  Today, as I faced yet another one of these bumpy painting days, I decided that I couldn’t paint the way I usually do.  I would have to let the bumps have their way.

Playing with form and color

I’ve never felt competent with abstraction, but today the negative space beckoned.  I grabbed a sharpie and started.  An hour later, this is where I am.  Stepping back from the canvas, I was reminded of another painting I did a long time ago.

The very first painting I did was on a piece of board from the basement with five tubes of acrylic paint and one paint brush.  I really can’t remember what made me want to paint — perhaps it was that the kids were growing up and they didn’t need me so much in the evening.  I remember wanting to get this image out. See the black lines?  The blue?  This must be the way I find my way out of a problem.  Black lines and blue.

…and blue. Always blue.

In the practice of yoga, we are reminded that a beginner’s mind is something to be cultivated and valued.  The beginner’s mind has the wisdom of not knowing.  Nothing to say “you can’t do this,” or “don’t even try.”  A beginner’s mind hasn’t started to puff up about what it can do or do well.  It just is ready for the learning.

My take on these similarities is that the black lines allow my mind to focus — to see the form that is calling to me.  The blue is like the sky — open, vast, infinite.  Not a bad place to start to learn something new.  Finding form and sensing the freedom that wisdom brings.

Here’s the passage that I’m playing with as I get ready for tomorrow’s class:

Prevent trouble before it arises.  Put things in order before they exist.  The giant pine tree grows from a tiny sprout.  The journey of 1,000 miles begins beneath your feet.  Rushing into action, you fail.  Trying to grasp things, you lose them.  Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe.  Therefore, the Master takes action by letting things take their corse.  He remains calm at the end as at the beginning.  He has nothing thus has nothing to lose.  What he desires is non-desire.  What he learns is to unlearn.  He simply reminds people of who they have always been.  He cares about nothing by the Tao.  Thus he can care for all things.  

-Lao Tzu

Joy in Labor

A yoga practice is a way of reframing…

About fifteen years ago when I was just a bit lost, a friend took me to dinner and gave me two out-of-print editions of theologian Paul Tillich’s sermons.  At the time I was considering going to seminary.  The sermon “The Meaning of Joy,” found in The New Being (1955, Scribner) is an essay I’ve returned to time and again.  (Although I was not called to study at the seminary, serendipity led me to work there as their fundraiser for four wonderful years.)

Tillich argues that Christianity has lost its way in understanding and reflecting true joy — and I would argue that many of the world’s religions have done just the same, mostly because our basest instincts want to define joy as merely seeking pleasure or avoiding pain.    Tillich’s discussion of the joy of work is what is interesting to me on this Labor Day, particularly because it reminds us how central work is to true joy:

The joy about our work is spoiled when we perform it not because of what we produce but because of the pleasures it can provide us, or the pain against which it can protect us.  The pleasure about the fact that I am successful spoils the joy about the success itself.  Our joy about knowing truth and experiencing beauty is spoiled if we enjoy not the truth and the beauty but the fact that it is I who enjoys them…To seek pleasure for the sake of pleasure is to avoid reality, the reality of other beings and the reality of ourselves.  But only the fulfillment of what we really are can give us joy.  Joy is nothing else that the awareness of our being fulfilled in our true being, in our personal center.  And this fulfillment is possible only if we unite ourselves with what others really are.  It is reality that gives joy and reality alone. …”Rejoice!” That means:  “Penetrate from what seems to be real to that which is really real.”  Mere pleasure, in yourselves and in all other beings, remains in the realm of illusion about reality.  Joy is born out of union with reality itself. (pp. 145 -147)

Tillich’s essay brings us the same wisdom about joy as does Patajali’s Yoga Sutras.  True joy is discovered in understanding that it is illusion that keeps us separate from each other and from our true selves.  For Patanjali, the eight-fold path is a practice (work) to bring our attention to the fact that we have within us the ability to break through the bonds of ignorance that keep us from enlightenment — pure joy — our true selves.  Patajali says that the veil of illusion makes us “confus[e] the temporary for the eternal, the impure for the pure, misery for happiness, and the false self for the true Self. (Yoga Sutras 2.5).  (See for more.  Great site shared with Tranquil Space teachers-in-training by Kevin Waldorf-Cruz.)

…and refining our knowledge, getting to what is really real.

I’ve had jobs that have kept me in the comfortable veil of illusion.  My personal “misery for happiness” illusion was thinking that I would get the golden ticket when I was a Mom of a toddler and a second grader, commuting 2 hours a day. When I was laid off from this job, I found a part-time (but really full-time) job helping a church build a mission into a free-standing non-profit organization serving vulnerable children with after school arts programming.  At the time, taking the Project Create job seemed self-indulgent.  Even though I was securing funding, developing the board, writing the 501(c)3 paperwork, hiring artists, keeping track of supply inventory and schlepping children all over town in a church van, I felt that I was hiding from the “real” world, licking my wounds.  But it was this job that was the realest of the real.  It allowed me to serve people who needed help.  It gave me the gift of hard physical labor.  I was able to develop or discover talents that would take to serve others.  Finally, this part-time job gave me time freedom that led to three other part-time jobs — one of which was with the Corcoran College of Art and Design, where I started to study and found more bliss in my own self-expression.

A yoga practice allows us to test, reframe and refine our knowledge each time we step on the mat and then asks that we take wisdom off the mat and into the world. The mat marks the path to our true selves that will not only give us, but also will allow us to reflect joy.

Thank you to all the wonderful friends at Iona Senior Services  as I celebrate five years of service this month.  Love the work — love you all!