Life As Art

The fading light drew me up the dusty path under fragrant branches, opening onto a vista of gentle slopes spotted with tufts of purple desert shrubs. A bench appeared and I settled onto it, turning to face the sun melting vibrant orange over the subtely shimmering white city lights. A strand of melody arose that formed itself into the delicate notes of Speigel im Speigel. I fumbled for my earbuds and opened the bookmarked Youtube video. A tiny bird reeled above in sync to the music it could only have heard in my mind. As darkness melted across the view, the last of the hikers trickled passed until I was alone with the sky and the shrubs and whatever was hiding among them. A wind picked up and with it, Sufi Qawwali. I swapped the video and was lifted by the devotional percussion. It carried me down the path, nearly invisible in shadow, and into the arms of a huge tree, multiple trunks leaning out from the slope so I could rest against them as a jaguar with all my limbs dangling and my heart resting flush against its flesh.

I turned my head, my ear against its bark, and was filled by the most glorious sound. As the wind stirred the upper branches, the familiar creaking was accompanied by a subtle sound like water ebbing and flowing through tide pools. This delicious vibration ran down its body and into mine, filling me with wonder and well-being. When we parted, I ached the way I do each time I leave the arms of a lover – or any sublime moment beyond myself – and re-enter the world of language and thought that stands several steps removed from my depths. I chastised myself for being unable to live in the world in the way I do in these mystical moments, but then the hero’s journey rose in my mind. We are not meant to dwell in both worlds simultaneously. Even indigenous peoples left the village and their identities when they journeyed into the wilderness. What we are invited to do is to become more adept at severing those ties, wandering open and receptive to the Mystery, and then picking up our worldly garb again, trusting that whatever magic worked in us will continue beneath our awareness and without our volition. Lovers are not the only things that hold and thrill us. The whole world does when we are still enough and listening.

Liz Gilbert spoke of this collaboration during a recent interview with Krista Tippett for her podcast On Being. She was adamant that what makes us unique as humans is our creative spirit. We all, regardless of culture, means, and ability, have an innate drive to experiment, build, invent, and beautify. But many of us are cast out of that birthright by the judgement of others and the way we internalize it. We think that Suzie is the dancer and Johnny is the painter, and that we have no talent, and so we stop creating and our source of vitality suffers. We back away from life and stay small out of fear of failure and/or ridicule. But if we begin to open to our natural curiosities, even if they don’t make any sense, even if they don’t garner praise from others or the possibility of livelihood, we re-enter a sacred exchange with what I consider the divine. We put in the labor to pursue what stirs us, and then those moments of serendipity come when the muse works through us and we find effortless flow. Expecting to stay in that space is folly, setting us up for disappointment and giving up. 90% of any labor is tedious, even when it is soul work. The point is to live in wonder and readiness for those moments of collaboration – God, good luck, inspiration, whatever you want to call it. To live with curiosity instead of fear is to live a life that is a work of art in a constant state of movement, open to the collaboration between our efforts and abilities, and the divine spark that is seeking expression.

The day I heard music in the sunset and in the trunk of the tree was such a day. I had been challenged by my on-line women’s group to spend an entire day in play because I was in desperate need of a break from planning my life and felt I had forgotten how to just relax and be. The night I received the challenge, I slipped into one of the deepest despairs I can recall and then a small thought came to me. I remembered the story I used to tell before every meditation class I taught: that I have a daily meditation practice because when I don’t, I am consumed by anxiety and addictive patterns. The next day, I woke and meditated for the first time in months, bathed by a spacious sense of homecoming. Hours later, I was surprised by a sense of expansive warmth in my belly during a phone interview and my ease in communicating my needs. The next day, I meditated again and received a job offer that included everything I had asked for, plus more, and my usual anxious skepticism rested in me more lightly. The following day, I took my day of play, vowing to have no screen time – phone, computer, or TV – and to focus on presence. I sketched a Japanese tea house. I absorbed images of water falls, swirling koi, and leaves against the bright blue sky. I happened upon a music recital with stunningly moving piano performances, and I heard music in the sunset and in the tree. I have continued to meditate and doors have continued to open in startling synchronicity. The despair has been replaced by grateful anticipation and willing curiosity of what lies ahead. What I have been straining to birth for months, is suddenly rushing through in layers of perfect harmony I never could have foreseen or orchestrated.

My mind knows that things will come when the time is right, that we can only do so much in one day and only control a small part of the reality unfolding around us. As professor Craig Chalquist told me recently, it is important to balance the yang – action which can prevent us from listening – and the yin – which waits for unfolding. But even though we know this, it does not free us from doing our part, from the tedious labor of exploring each possible path with every one of our skills and abilities. I recently heard it said that the moment of grace comes when, and only when, we have done everything we can. Our success is neither completely luck nor completely our own effort and ingenuity. This enables us to revel in our growing resourcefulness and remain in awe of, and in intimate relationship with, the unseen forces that collaborate with us to create lives of service, beauty, and adventure.

I believe the that the powerful shift that took place in me during my day of play and rest was directly related to my renewed commitment to stilling my mind and breaking out of my habitual way of being. And that art was instrumental in creating that opening. When I was sketching (very, very badly) my mind was blank and still. When I was viewing the koi and the water and the leaves, they entered into me through an open channel. And the music of the recital pulled through that channel deeply inspiring music from my past, music that took me to a transcendent state and enabled me to hear the music in the world around me. Stillness and curiosity created an opening through which the divine that lies beyond me could reach me and partner with me.

The greatest value of the arts – and our greatest loss when we deny our birthright as both consumers and creators of art – is in the way it connects us with what we are beyond rational thought. We can lose ourselves in linear processes, in task lists, and in controlling the future and come to believe that we are alone and our lives don’t matter. But when we reach out to engage with curiosity, feel ourselves come alive in the moment, and experience the presence of forces we may never fully see or understand, we come to know what lies beyond our limited sense of self and possibility. We create space for what is longing to express through us, and our lives become an artistic collaboration between our labor and the mystery.

Nancy

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” ― Audre Lorde

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