I want to paint a horse. I reach for brown and bring the brush to the white sheet of paper. Shapes and lines form. I become interested and absorbed in this simple activity. Something inside begins to vibrate gently. I feel connected, present, focused. I finish. I stand back to take a look. Oh no! Horror arises as a critical voice informs me that my horse doesn’t look like a horse at all, but rather an ungainly dog! It’s “all wrong!” Dismay fills me. I want to paint out the “all wrong” horse, get rid of it. Such a reaction would formerly have led me to destroy the painting or to give up in frustration. Instead, through the skillful guidance of the teachers at the Painting Experience, I have learned to respect and allow whatever presents itself and to keep on painting.
The painting process, as taught at the Painting Experience by Michele Cassou and Stewart Cubley, is remarkably similar to meditation practice. In this unique way of painting, discovered and developed by Cassou, there is no teaching of technique, no emphasis on creating an “artistic” result as in traditional painting classes, nor is there any emphasis on interpreting the content of one’s painting as in traditional art therapy. The focus is on the actual painting process.
I started painting eleven years ago, picking up where I had left off in the fourth grade when an art teacher had “looked funny” at a little painting I felt rather proud of; I had decided on the spot that I wasn’t good enough to paint, even though I loved doing it. I felt a bit insecure in my first Painting Experience class because I was afraid I wouldn’t “do it right.” I struggled a lot with an inner critic as well as my fear of criticism by the teacher. But little by little my insecurity melted away and a wonderful new world of painting-as-I-always-wanted to-be-able-to-paint opened up for me. I discovered a way of painting that is enlivening, empowering and liberating. Now I want to tell everyone I know—and often do at some length—why I think the Painting Experience is a valuable adjunct to sitting practice.
What happens when we get up off our zafus and reenter our daily lives with all of their complexity and speed? All too often, our sense of identity tends to resolidify. We may find ourselves back in old reactive patterns: grasping, holding on, trying to control, avoiding, liking, disliking, getting lost, upset, carried away.
This is where I find the painting extremely helpful. It is an intermediate process between sitting in silence and being fully engaged in daily activities and relationships. When we sit in meditation we are disengaged from the external world of form. When we paint we are engaging with the world of form. We actively interact with our painting. Paintings are like thoughts. They arise moment-to-moment out of the mind, but unlike thoughts they don’t disappear. They arise and remain, inviting response.
As the painting takes shape before us in colors and lines and shapes, we start reacting to it: we may like it and therefore want to protect it; we may hate it and want to destroy it; we almost always try to control it, to make it fit our ideas; or we get busy interpreting its meaning. In short, all of our reactive tendencies arise in response to lines and shapes and colors. At times I find myself reacting to my painting with as much intensity of feeling as I do to living, breathing people in my life.
Miraculously, when I surrender my judgment or concept about how something should look, the magic of painting actually begins. A process of transformation occurs. By accepting what is, not only do I breathe life back into my very being, but the painting also begins to breathe with a vital life of its own, becoming what it wants, not what I want. It informs me of what it wants on a moment-to-moment basis— a color here, a line there, a shape emerging. We begin to dance—the painting and I—in a flowing and vital and often surprising process.
Learning to paint in this way is to experience in an immediate and interactive way what it means to live with “don’t know mind.” The more I paint the less I “know” about my paintings. They seem to come from a place in myself about which I have little conscious knowledge. Each painting has the potential—if I can keep letting go—to be a journey into a compelling and unknown world. The boundaries of my being can expand, just as they do in meditation.
“It’s only paper and paint,” I try to remember when I’m caught in a particularly strong reaction to my painting. In a recent workshop I attended, Casson cheerfully admonished us, “Do you know what is going to become of your paintings? Dust!! They will be dust!!” Groans and laughter erupted in the studio in recognition of this simple obvious truth! So why are we carrying on with our judgments, our need to control, our concepts, our interpretations-—all in relation to a very fragile and impermanent piece of paper?
Because that is what the mind does! It does it on the zafu. It does it in life. It does it in relation to paper and paint. Working with the painting is quite simply another way of working with the mind.