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.
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.
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.