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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Heed The Call

A detail from my painting, Will Is Belief

A detail from my painting, Will Is Belief

“It’s hard to explain to people,” said Chris. “I’m answering a calling. I know in my bones that I’m doing with my life exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. There is nothing else that gives me life. There is only this that I can give my life to. I don’t have a choice and that makes no sense to my family and friends.”

Chris is an artist, a brilliant actor. He acts because he needs to act and that is impossible to understand to those who’ve never had a soul-deep calling. It makes no sense to those witnessing the hardship his life path requires. His family and friends want him to have a better life. They want him to have a big home and two cars. They want him to have a back yard and a barbecue. What they can’t grasp is that Chris, like all artists with a calling, is acting from a selfless imperative. They aren’t doing it for themselves. They are not indulging an ego-need. They are, as Chris said, “creating to translate experiences for others.” Artists are meaning makers in a world that often makes no sense.

It is simple. Artists serve the force of unity in a world dedicated to the forces of division. And, that makes no sense.

Pastor Tom has a calling. He left a big salary career for the meager salary of a pastor because he could no longer ignore the inner voice demanding that he answer his call. It need not make sense because Pastor Tom can say that he answered God’s call. Chris’ calling is coming from the same source though, in our world, the connective tissue of his claim is not as easy to grasp.

Many people can draw, write, dance, act, sculpt, trumpet, and paint. A very few actually need to do it. They can do nothing else. Just as many people are capable of sermonizing and leading a church, it is the rare person who has to do it, who can do nothing else. Chris would wither if he did, as his elders suggest, leave his crazy pursuit and get a real job that pays real money and provides real stability. They do not know what Chris knows: stability has nothing to do with money or jobs that make sense.

Sense-making is a matter of the head. Chris is a servant of the heart.

There is a very powerful Hungarian film, called White God (though if you are a dog lover as I am you should probably steer clear). It is film about violence and suppression begetting nothing but more violence and suppression. It makes sense. In the final scene of the movie, when faced with a tide of horrific violence, a young girl pulls her trumpet from her backpack and begins to play. The beauty of her playing stops the unstoppable. It breaks the cycle of violence. It makes no sense: beauty has the power to extinguish violence.

Beauty has the capacity to unify a world dedicated to division and violence. This is what Chris’ call is all about. This is what he knows in his bones. It is the reason he gets on the stage for meager pay. It is the reason he spends his days going to endless auditions and producing plays on subway platforms and other places where few will ever stop and take notice. It is the reason a big backyard and sensible job make no sense. He is a servant to the power of beauty, the wonders of art, the necessity of illuminating unity amidst the madness of division. With this calling, all other paths are closed. They simply make no sense.

Make Quiet

A sanctuary

A sanctuary

It is Thursday night. Kerri is attending a meeting at the church and I have tagged along so I might sit alone in the sanctuary. I’ve always loved entering the quiet spaces. Once, a lifetime ago in Sedona, John called me “guru dude” because I sat for hours nestled in the quiet of a vortex. It felt like minutes to me. I think it unsettled him that I was so completely settled. I know it unsettled him that I would rather seek quiet than make noise.

Sanctuaries, I’ve learned, are everywhere.

My task, my mantra, and my delight of a few years ago was to realize that all the world is my studio. I had some amazing help and more than one universal dope slap before that realization sank in. I used to believe that in order to create I had to escape the world to find the refuge and quiet of my studio. I felt like I had to go to my studio to find my creative place just like I felt like I needed to go to a vortex to experience deep quiet. I had it upside-down. A studio, like a meditation practice, is meant to bring us into communion-with, not reinforce our isolation-from. It is not a place of escape. It is a place of joining. Quiet is not something we find as much as something we allow.

To me, the word “studio” and the word “sanctuary” are now equivalents. They are the places that creating happens and creation is a quiet process: the inner chatter stops, channels open, and something comes through. A few weeks ago, in the second performance of The Lost Boy, we stepped onto the stage and everything was quiet inside. There was no past and no future; there was only the moment – and it joined us, audience and performers, in a single, shared story. Something came through us; together we created. There was no effort, there was no striving; there was, as Jim Edmondson used to say, “a dance of giving and receiving.”

This “joining” is the dirty little secret and great power of the arts. It is something that school boards will never understand but something that dictators across the ages have feared. Artists are the vortex of joining, of shared identity, of explosive quiet, of laughter that crosses lifetimes. The arts do not separate; when at their most potent they unite. They clarify. They delineate substance from chatter en route to a powerful common center that is as holy, as quiet, as it is creative.

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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Walk As One

From my archives. I call this painting, "Alki."

From my archives. I call this painting, “Alki.”

Alan and I talked today. We are planning our upcoming Summit in Holland in June. Our conversations are always as wide-ranging as they are deep dives into sense making and soul. There seems to be no horizon that we won’t step towards, no secret passage that we won’t explore. This has been true since the moment we met. We’ve always been verdant collaborators. We joked that someday clients will hire us just to listen to how our minds spark each other. And, given our conversation today, we’d be worth every penny. We are both in the business of facilitating perceptual shifts and transformation so we do it for each other. Our planning sessions are a festival of insight upon insight, shift within shift. Together, we are innovation squared.

Recently, I shared a short TED talk by neurologist V.S. Ramachandran about mirror neurons and how deeply and concretely we are connected despite our belief/experience that we are separate. It came up again for me because during our call Alan and I discussed the waves of far-reaching impact that any simple action or word generates. Paul Barnes used to say to young actors, “Never underestimate the power you have to influence another person’s life.” Most of us are unaware of the impact that we have on lives that we never directly touch. For instance, I have had great teachers in my life and I carry their work forward in every word I write and every group I facilitate. My teachers will never know the many lives they touched and continue to touch. And, neither will I. And, neither will you. The best we can do is know that our actions matter, our thoughts matter, our intentions matter. We are more powerful than we understand.

No one lives in a vacuum. No one creates without influences. No one has a purely original thought. In fact, if you grasp what V.S. Ramachandran is addressing, no one thinks or feels independently of others. We are not as isolated or as separate as we believe ourselves to be. We have to work at separation. We are, each of us, continually co-creating (to use Alan’s term) our world in every moment of every day. What might you see if you stopped and pondered the implications of co-creation, if you took a moment and considered that you are not merely a bobber in an ocean but, in fact, are the ocean? How might you read the news of the day or address your dreams if you understood that you were a participant, a dynamic part, a burning point for the ancestors, a sender of ripples through space and time, and not simply walking this path all alone?

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