Look To The Living Thing

my latest, as yet un-named, painting

Kerri looked at this painting and told me it captures how she feels when our daughter is hurting and calls home. “Describe that feeling to me?” I asked. She pointed to the painting, and said, “Just like that.”

Some things are universal and understood regardless of political affiliation or religious belief. What does a mother need to know to support her child? The political investments and religious doctrines are abstractions, separations. Motherhood is direct; it lives beyond the capacity of language to capture and articulate. It is the impulse to unity. It transcends all divisions. It knows nothing of conceptions like the rational and irrational.

Jim and I just had one of our famous phone calls. Our discussion romped through many fields but we returned again and again to the notion that the important things in life cannot be rushed. For instance, relationship takes time. Relationship takes attention and tending. It is fluid and dynamic so it is nearly impossible to slap a single word-label on it. It changes. It grows. In a single day it can pass through many descriptors. Dog-Dog can drive me crazy in one moment and melt my heart the next. The important stuff, like relationship, is not static or containable. It is not a concept. It is a living thing.

So What?

The best language can do is point to the living. Language can describe experience but can never be experience. Language, of necessity, reduces while the important stuff – like relationship – like love – expands. Language, as a tool of abstraction, can never be true. It can only point toward truth. Language separates. Truth is like relationship. Truth is a living thing, dynamic and changing. To be known, it must, like motherhood, be experienced directly.

Again, so what?

Direct experience is always (obviously) personal. Truth is not so easily captured. Is it exclusively liberal or conservative? Is it Christian? Buddhist? Is it unique to Islam, Judaism, or the Tao? Leave the city lights some night, take a good long look at the stars, and realize what you are staring into.

Last week we rushed 20 to the hospital. He couldn’t breathe. He walked to the edge of the abyss and looked into it. We watched him teeter on the edge. As we watched, all other concerns, pursuits, bills, frustrations, news,…, dropped away. The stuff of separations and abstractions went to dust in the face of the actual. Ask me what I experienced watching 20 grasp for life? There are no words. Ask him what he experienced in those long hours and he will shrug his shoulders. There are no words – but it is clear in his eyes.

The important stuff, the stuff beyond words, leaps the boundaries of separation and abstraction; all else falls away. The important stuff always leads to a universal place, a common ground. It is a beautiful paradox.  As a test, try this: if language can reach it, ask this very important and often absent question: Is it really true or merely another entrenched point of view?

a detail

Live Your Metaphor

2mayyoubepeace-jpegA view from 30,000 feet (a meditation on metaphor):

Joe used to say that the universe tends toward wholeness. “Tends” is a precarious word of movement, like a tree that leans. Still, to me, Joe’s sentiment – his metaphor – is hopeful. He might have said that the universe tends toward confusion.

Chris and Janelle are starting a new theatre company, The Seadog Theatre Company. They are dedicating their work to exploring stories of alienation and reconciliation. Both alienation and reconciliation are words of movement. The first, alienation, is a movement away from wholeness (toward confusion?). The second, reconciliation, is a movement toward wholeness. Push away. Reach across.

Chris and I agree that all stories, from the deepest mythology to the most whimsical lampoon, are explorations of alienation and reconciliation. It is the human journey, it is humanity’s journey. It is the human experience. Journey is a word of movement, from here to there.

The Big Bang is science’s great narrative of alienation and reconciliation. Out of nothingness (formlessness) in a violent explosion of energy, all forms took shape. Stars, meteors, planets, atoms and oceans and daisies and Dog-Dog. Energy expressed in form. And then, so the narrative goes, form returns to energy. Like the tides going out the energy of the explosion will eventually turn, exhausted, and fall back toward the center in the Big Merge.

The eye blinks open, a universe comes into being. The eye blinks closed, a universe disappears. The tide comes in. The tide rolls out. It’s a cycle of movement. Metaphor.

“Your words are alienation and reconciliation,” I wrote to Chris, “mine are separation and unity. Same thing, yes?”

I’ve never been comfortable with religions because they often claim their metaphors as fact – and that freezes movement. For instance, Adam and Eve were Big-Banged out of the Garden of Eden for eating an apple from the tree of knowledge. One bite of the apple blew their minds open to differences. Separation. It is the experience of birth into this whacky world of duality and confusion. And just like all the stars and planets and oceans and daisies of the field hurtling through space and time, it is a story meant to help us seek wholeness as we stride though this field of opposites.

The universe may tend but we can intend. We can create. We can choose. We can point our ships toward alienation, we can cleave our world into us-and-them, run in fear and separation. Or, we can make conscious our stories (as Chris and Janelle intend in their theatre), we can walk the middle path (a potent metaphor), and recognize that the separation is at best temporary and arbitrary. Like the stars and planets and oceans and daisies, we will also exhaust the force of our explosion into form and fall back into the Big Merge.

products-may-you-be-jpegcool stuff like prints/mugs/pillows/cards/iphone cases/clocks

 

Peace.

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PEACE on iTunes:  kerri sherwood – track 5 on AS IT IS

 

 

 

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Have A Conversation

my quick sketches of two of the stained glass window panels

my quick sketches of two of the stained glass window panels

Yesterday I learned that my conversation with the stained glass window was only on hiatus. Several months ago we simply stopped talking. In the silence I thought the conversation was complete. For almost two years we had a weekly chat. I took lots of notes.

I recognize that one is not supposed to have chats with windows – at least not admit to it. Master Marsh teased me saying, “There’s help for things like this.” I’ve decided that my conversation with the window is more ordinary than odd: plenty of people around the world talk to statues. Most of us have had silent reckoning with the sky. I’ve witnessed mechanics talking to their tools and bakers wooing their dough. Who hasn’t cursed the object of a home fix-it job-gone-wrong (plumbing regularly gets a tongue lashing from me!) or praised a project done well? Traffic gets a regular talking to. In this region, at this time of year, more than a few brides make deals with the weather. A soul in exchange for sunshine.

Who hasn’t, in a moment of turmoil, looked inside themselves and asked for help? Who hasn’t uttered a quiet thank you or asked for guidance or made an appeal? Call it prayer, meditation, epiphany, catharsis, intuition, gut instinct, reading the signs, hearing the call, or communing with nature, it’s a conversation.

I’m not the only artist – or scientist for that matter – that, in moments of flow, feels as if something bigger is coming through. In that sense, all of my paintings might serve as the record of a conversation with something bigger. Writers often speak about having the experience of the characters writing themselves, of following rather than creating. Following, surrendering, allowing, listening, responding, getting out of the way. Play the chords long enough and you no longer need to think about them. In the land beyond thinking about it, music becomes possible. It’s a conversation.

Sitting on the chancel, listening to Kerri play, I stared as I often do at the morning light pouring through the colored glass. I studied the symbols. Birth and death. Tree of knowledge, Tree of Everlasting Life. The Grail standing between two flames. It’s a repetition in symbol of the same idea. Born into an experience of duality and distinctions, a world fighting over its differences, we have the opportunity to walk the middle path, the unity consciousness, the “something bigger.” “Between the two, one,” I the heard the window whisper. “It’s simple, really.”

a quick sketch of all three panels: birth, death, and the middle way.

a quick sketch of all three panels: birth, death, and the middle way.

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Step Into Your Sanctuary

An oldie simply called ANGEL

An oldie simply called ANGEL

It is night and I am hanging out in the sanctuary while Kerri attends a meeting. I never in my life thought I’d hang out in a sanctuary but I quite like it. It is quiet and I am by myself. It is a good place to meditate or just get still. I am sitting with my stain glass window wondering if there is a conversation in the offing. I’ve spent many nights in my life sitting alone in dark empty theatres and always felt the same sense of peace that I feel at this moment.

I like the word “sanctuary.” It implies a safe place, a resting place. If all the world is my studio then it is also my aspiration to live as if all the world is my sanctuary. I’ve always understood my studio to be a holy place, a place of creation and presence. Going to my studio has always been a step into a safe space. It is where I rejuvenate. Tonight, sitting here, it occurs to me that “studio” and “sanctuary” are very similar words. They are very similar places just as “theatre” and “church” have, for me, been mostly interchangeable: where we go to affirm the stories that identify and transform us; where we go to find our community. My sister finds her community in a church. I have, until lately, found mine in the theatre.

This rambling path begs the question, “What is sacred and what is not?” Yesterday Diane told me that she is a spiritual teacher and I believe that is true. This morning while walking I remembered her words and wondered if we are all spiritual teachers to each other. Some of my greatest teachers had no idea that they were teaching me.They had no intention of teaching me. One great teacher was sweeping a floor and had no idea that I was watching him. He was one of the happiest people I have ever seen. He was shining. He was doing a job that most people would deplore. Everyone who saw him smiled, myself included. He was not his job. He was not his body. He was…connected and alive in his moment. He was living in his sanctuary and helped me know that all the world can be a holy place. He helped crack my understanding of what is possible.

These lines we draw between the sacred and profane are mostly imagined. They are convenient and sometimes useful but they are illusions that I am beginning to understand as destructive. Us and them. A divided house begins in a belief of divisions – a need for division. I’ve often told the story of the executive, red in the face, pounding the table with his fist, shouting, “I know how to compartmentalize my reason from my emotions!” I remember thinking, why would any one want to cut off their emotions from their reason? A better question might have been, who, in their right mind, willingly cleaves themselves into pieces? What delusion is necessary to entertain the notion that reason and emotions are distinct and separate? Separations are generally an indication of not-right-mindedness and a dedication to controlling the uncontrollable.

The angry executive was also a great spiritual teacher for me, too. He taught me to check my assumptions and step over the lines of false distinction that I draw. I can connect the dots directly from his table pounding exclamation to my desire to define my studio as all the world; to live consciously in my sanctuary all of my days.

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Let Go The Separation

720. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

It is Sunday night and I am reviewing my week. Sometimes I am astounded at how much happens in a single week of life. I’m sure this is always true but lately I am acutely aware of the passing of the days, the variety and richness of my experiences every day. I started to make a list and after filling a few pages I stopped. There was no point in going on because the point was made: there is no list capable of capturing the enormity, the passing of a single week of life.

In order for lists to be meaningful the items need to be separate, discreet. Generally, this is how we look at our lives, things on a list: grocery shopping, driving kids to daycare, lessons, dinner with friends, a trip to the gym, etc.; separate achievable actions checked from the list.

From another point of view there is no separation. Place the emphasis, not on the achievement, but on the quality of process, the level of presence and meaningful engagement, and the list blends into a single experience with many textures and colors. The separations are constructs and largely false. How can I separate experiences like the conversation in the gallery from the chips and salsa and beer from the walk along the river?

Last Sunday a friend made me dinner to celebrate my birthday, I flew on a plane with a woman who was very ill so we talked of the comforts of being home, I stood by the river on a freezing cold evening and watched with awe the geese swirling like locust in the sky, I sang “Yesterday” with Lexi on Friday night, drank too much coffee and sat up half the night writing emails, walked through the galleries of the Joslyn museum, stopped in awe at the El Greco and Thomas Hart Benton and laughed through my first grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich. When did one experience stop and the other begin?

I flew, I sang, I celebrated, I stood, I drank, I walked, I stopped in awe, I laughed… They are only separate actions because the limits of language make them so – or because I might have chosen to see my life as a list. I could write: I lived. I could write: I loved. These are also true.

I stood over the Missouri River watching the ice like enormous frozen lily pads flow beneath me. Depending upon where I looked they seemed to be rushing by or almost standing still. It depended upon where I placed my focus. When I focus on achieving my lists the days rush by as I race through my days. When I let go the separations, all days become varied and rich; the moments like the icy lily pads move by me though I have to distinct impression that I am standing still.

Flip it!

669. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

I am in New England and it is winter. This morning as the sun rose, as the sky progressed through purple and orange to steel grey there was a very light snow falling. The world was so quiet that it inspired inner quiet. I think this is what is supposed to happen in winter: we are meant to slow down, get quiet, to go inside, reflect, keep warm, catch up on some sleep, and touch the eternal in ways that are only accessible when the days are short and the ground is frozen.

Yesterday, as Alan and I planned the summit that we will facilitate in Holland in March, we strayed from our task and talked about separation and connectivity. I am oriented into the world according to my cultural defaults: separate from all of nature (including my own), a dominator, steeped in the notion that I can control things and given to the hubris that one of the things I can control is nature. And yet, I am at odds with my orientation. I don’t believe any of it. My life’s work (for myself and others) is to flip it, to offer a different, healthier narrative.

Once, many years ago, when I was in Bali, I had a conversation that helped me clarify what would become the work of my life. I was explaining to a Balinese man what it was to be an artist in America and he was deeply perplexed by my premise. He said to me, “But, all people are artists; all people are creative.” To be alive is to be creative. It is a mark of the culture of separation to believe that you are or are not creative, to see creativity as a limited resource or a perhaps an endowment for the special. It is a characteristic of a culture of connectivity to understand that all of life is creative and to be alive is to be a participant in the vibrant, creative, ever changing flow of life – as a vibrant, creative, ever changing being.

Stand In The Cornfield

647. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Many years ago I painted a portrait of my father standing in a cornfield. It was an odd painting for me to do at the time as I’d stopped doing portraits years before. I just had to do it. I wasn’t working from a photograph; I just knew he had to be standing in a cornfield. It is a painting I never show. It is a painting of yearning fulfilled.

My father was born in a small farming town in Iowa and spent his adult life yearning to live in the place of his birth. He moved for work and then for love and although he knew where he wanted to be, he could not find a way to return. I put him in the cornfield because symbolically that was where he most wanted to be: in a small community, contained, where life made sense, where people knew where they fit and where people were not in so much of a hurry that they would stop and talk.

Yearning is a funny thing. Yearning is a necessary thing. Yearning is not what is missing; it is the space between where you are and where you want to be. Yearning can be fuel. It can help clarify what you want and energize your actions toward manifesting your desire. Or, it can twist your guts and make you bitter: unspent energy needs to do something and if it is not moving toward your fulfillment it will knot your belly and make your neck tense. Once in a class, I watched several people give speeches. Many put their energy into the speech and where poised, present. Many others were ungrounded and unconsciously pounded the podium or wiggled their legs; energy must have someplace to go.

Yearning can be proof of separation (“I don’t have what I want”) or proof of connectivity (“this is what I will create”). The difference lives in how you define yourself: if you are in this life looking for what you can get, your yearning will probably feel a lot like separation. If you are in this life living according to what you bring to it, your yearning will be an umbilical cord to what you will create and will nourish you in the creating.