The Artist’s Way

Ananya Sri Ram Rajan – USA

Medley AR 213 b

Many years ago, my son attended a boarding school during his high school years. The school prided itself on the motto “Art Lives Here.”  As a mom of a student accepted to a rather prestigious school, I was enamored with this statement. My son was not. Every time we passed a banner or sign that stated, “Art Lives Here” he would say “Such nonsense!” I used to think it was just teenage angst until I finally asked him why he had such annoyance about the statement. His reply was very matter of fact. He said, “Art cannot be contained. It lives all around us. You can’t say “Art Lives Here” and then tell students their ideas are not art. It’s hypocrisy. If art lives here, so do artists and artists have a different way of looking at the world. In general, we don’t like being contained. But there are so many rules here that this where art comes to die.”

In his interview with Rick Rubin, in the series McCartney 321, Sir Paul talks about his years with the Beatles and how much they tried to push the boundaries with what could be done in the music studio. In particular, he talks about the song “A Day in the Life” where members of the orchestra were asked to play the scale of their instrument as fast or as slow as they wanted in order to create the cacophonic ending. Sir Paul states that the string section had a difficult time not playing independently from one another. The point here is that pushing boundaries is often the way we find out what is possible. Not doing so is the containment my son mentioned.

Don Jose Ruiz, the son of Don Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements) writes in his book The Medicine Bag, that the “Toltec people were purposefully creative and expressive. In fact, the very name Toltec means “artist” in Nahuatl . . .The Toltecs taught that every one of us is an artist, and the art we are creating is the story of our lives.” One wonders what life would be like if we were all raised with this belief. Especially those of us who feel we are not creative. In reality, how can we not be creative when we all come from creation itself? We are part and parcel of something so much larger. All we need to do is tap into THAT from which we come.

The Toltecs were not alone in their thinking. The Stoics also believed that we are the designers of our lives. No different than any other philosophy or practice, Stoicism offers guidelines as well.  (The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber is a nice introduction for anyone unfamiliar with it.) But Stoicism, according to Salzgeber, teaches us how live in agreement with Nature so we can live authentically in the world. It is only by living authentically that we can live creatively, i.e., living as an artist. But what does that actually entail?

Too often we get caught up seeing the world the way everyone else believes it to be. In fact, we are conditioned to believe that anyone who doesn’t see things as we do, to be wrong. We stigmatize that which is different. If we carefully watch ourselves with complete awareness, we will realize how often our body tenses when faced with something that we innately find uncomfortable. We may not even be conscious of it. But our bodies often respond before the mind even knows why. Immediately we have closed ourselves off from the difference. The artist would ask “Why?” and look at one’s reaction to see where it takes them. There is an openness to the search, a curiosity. When we are curious, the mind is stimulated and there is no fear. There is no containment. There is a type of freedom that allows for more exploration. This may be how may sculptors “see” the statue in the block of stone.

This seems easy enough to understand until we have to put things into practice. How many of us have the courage to really be who we are? Then again, how many of us really know who we are? The exploration of why we react the way we do, where our reactions come from, and why, despite the constant work to let things not bother us, we keep reacting to things we honestly cannot control, can become exhausting. Yet, such work seems necessary if we are to “make friends” with ourselves.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in a change in perspective. On a recent walk, I came to a point where things I had looked at several times, suddenly looked different. It may have been at the point of where I was standing. Perhaps I had not stopped at that particular point before. Perhaps the lighting was different, or the color of the trees. It is difficult to know. All I know is that I saw things differently in the distance. Until that morning, things I had looked at several times before, looked the same.

Soon after this walk, I got a text message from a friend who because of a hurricane, had no electricity. She mentioned the same thing. Because the infrastructure that allows us to “carry on” was not there, life completely changed. Things slowed down. There was nowhere to be but in the present moment. Her perspective had changed. There was a widening of view that had taken place.

When we look at things from a wider perspective, there is an expansion that we can relax into. Things seem less constrictive and tend to move at a pace more in line with the natural world. Sometimes, like in the case of a hurricane, we are forced to do this. But voluntarily taking a different perspective, or allowing life to slow us down requires a relaxed mind. The stress we create in our lives through competition, division, and strife lies within us. If we are capable of letting this go, the mind softens. Things we find so important, can seem quite silly. And if we allow it, our whole being can quiet down. This brings us into a calmer space.

Many of us have been awed by the beauty or profound work of an artist through music, poetry, painting, sculptor or even theater or dance. Our monkey mind is stilled and we see things at a deeper perspective. It may not happen right away. Sometimes we have step out of the busy energy of the day and relax into silence. It is there that we connect with the beauty that possibly inspired the work we see before us.

Becoming artists of our own lives releases the limits we put upon ourselves. Often all we need to do is take a breath and ask “Why?” or “Is there another way of seeing or doing this?” By allowing creativity to guide our lives, we may find a new approach to living. This, as the Stoics say, allows us to live in agreement with Nature and therefore more authentically within ourselves.

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