Zen of Art 10/7/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

My friends are so talented.  I have many art friends who just really blow my mind with their abilities.  One in particular would respond to this saying, “Thanks, I practiced for hours.” 

I’m not convinced that I have any talent.  I fear I may be tone-deaf, and I certainly can’t paint or draw.  She would tell me that it’s not a lack of talent so much as practice.  Her argument would be (I’m sure) that with sufficient practice, anybody can be a great artist, be it paint, music, writing, or any other medium you wish to mention, but it’s never instantaneous.  Nobody can pick up a paintbrush and be a Picasso.  Even Picasso couldn’t do that.

Okay, maybe Mozart.

Today, I was thinking about how art and the Zen philosophy might fit together.  Zen teaches that one can reach a “higher plane” by repetition.  The old example is the Zen monk asking the new member, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”  The new member would disappear and come back with what was surely the answer, trying opening and closing the hand quickly so a sound is created with just one hand, then trying slapping himself in the face (or the leg, if he’s bright), then the ground, and so on.  None of these answers were correct.  In fact, it wasn’t until the new recruit came back for the appointment, ashamedly admitting that his mind drifted and the hours melted away before he could come back with another answer.  That was, in fact, the answer the master would seek.

In essence, the point of the exercise is to drive the student to such extreme boredom as to leave their body in their mind.  It’s basically like meditating.  But this can be experienced in a variety of different manners.  In a Zen book I read, one of the prime examples was polishing the silver.  The task is so repetitive and requires such little mind power that eventually the student’s mind would drift away to the “higher plane”.  One of the most famous books in this vein is the Kama Sutra although few people really understand the point of the book.  It was never meant to be a “sex manual”, but rather, a gateway to the higher plane through sex.  Yes, even sex can lead to a higher plane if it’s practiced with purpose. 

Now think about my artistic friends.  Think of the repetition of they brush strokes, or the pencil motions, or the keystrokes on the keyboard.  They know what they want, and yet, I can’t help but wonder how often in practicing their art they simply “drift away” from their conscious mind? 

This is something that I think most (if not all of us) have periodically experienced.  Time seems to just evaporate, and suddenly hours upon hours have gone by.  I have a friend that can always make this happen to me.  Whenever we get together, the time to separate always seems just moments from when we first meet.  Driving can do that to me as well, suddenly I’ve been on the road for several hours and I didn’t even notice the time.  This is what I wonder about my artist friends. 

To create some piece of art, regardless of the medium, it takes a lot of time and patience.  Steve Martin once joked about this, claiming that Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in just one stroke.  When I used to paint, and when I play guitar, I’m always all too aware of the time that I’m putting into it.  I’ve never hit that stride where suddenly I look up and realize I’ve been at it for, say, three, four, maybe even six hours.  I’ve never reached that Zen “higher plane”.  At least not while trying to be creative.

I’ve reached it at other times.  In graduate school, every once in a while, I would look up from my research and realize that it was morning.  These thirty-hour days would kill me now, but back then it was just how engrossed I would be.  Yes, I was aware it was dark outside, the building was empty, and it was late, but the time just literally slipped away. 

If my artistic friends reach this higher plane when they work, it’s another reason for me to be jealous of, and happy for them.  Now that I’ve decided that I am fully entrenched in my retirement years, I’m still seeking out activities and hobbies to keep my mind active.  Currently I’m leaning to music, and I hope that in doing so, I eventually find my Zen. 

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