Q&A: Naropa Professors Discuss “Artistic Process as Life” and Meditation Practice

By Travis Newbill

Jane Carpenter and Sue Hammond West will lead Creative Wisdom: Maitri and Art, November 15-17

Jane Carpenter

Jane Carpenter

The idea that artistry begins when the brush hits the canvass and ends when the palette is set down is questionable. An alternative view suggests that eating a pear may be as artistic of an activity as painting a still life. And, in this view, meditation practice is linked to both.

Sue Hammond West

Sue Hammond West

In the upcoming program Creative Wisdom: Maitri and Art Naropa University professors Jane Carpenter and Sue Hammond West will present teachings and practices related to artistic discipline as well as meditation practice in order to guide participants in a process of exploring the ways in which we can be more awake as we create art and how we may live our entire lives in a more artistic way.

In their words:

“This weekend program explores the state before you lay your hand on your brush or your canvas – very basic, peaceful and relaxed. Here art refers to all the activities of our life, including any artistic discipline that we practice, referring to our whole being. This way of working with art is noticing the state before you make art. The potential of artistic creation is to directly point to what is true, the richness and limitless potential of the present moment of experience – nowness. We awaken our appreciation for the richness of this colorful and challenging world. Fear drops away as we engage with direct experience.”

Recently, SMC caught up with Carpenter and West and asked them to elaborate a bit on some of these pithy notions.

Shambhala Mountain Center: To begin with, how does meditation relate to art, and vice versa?

Jane Carpenter: The mind is always giving rise to ideas and thoughts. So there is always material, even on the cushion. When we’re engaged in an artistic discipline, we’re allowing the energetic patterns in that material to be used. So, I actually see a similarity of the mind being a blank canvass, and what arises in it actually being the paint and the color, or the flowers, or whatever it is.

And how about the idea of “artistic process as life?”

JC: I think it’s the ground of presence that is the thread through experiencing one’s life in an artistic way and the joy that one experiences in artistic discipline.

Sue Hammond West: You have to be authentic, and present to that authenticity, in everything that you do–in every part of your life. Then, when you go into the studio to create the art, your mind is clear. You’re not divided in your attention. You’re completely present, clear, and authentic.

How does the formal practice of meditation benefit the process of making art?

SHW: Because you have meditated, you have this incredibly awake nervous system, and clarity of mind. Those are excellent places to make art from.

JC: We are also able to see our emotional landscape or what’s arising in the mind. So when I think of clarity of mind or presence, I also feel that we’re present with what’s going on with us. So, if we’re feeling sorrow, jealousy, or any particular emotion, we actually can embrace that and express that clearly in what we’re painting or building.

There seems to be a sense of going beyond embarrassment in this approach.

JC: I see embarrassment as sort of an overlay to our authenticity. We are experiencing something, and we overlay it with a “should.” Then, what’s reflected in the painting is the “should” rather than the actual, authentic, direct experience. That’s where the problem comes in because the artist is actually expressing aggression towards themselves and that aggression translates into the artwork and then into the viewer.

How does one avoid that?

JC: Well, it’s something that very important to notice. It’s not so much that it won’t happen, but I think one can discriminate in the process and actually develop an appreciation for recognizing when one enters shame or embarrassment and sees that as path rather than making it into a problem. I hope that’s not too complicated. (laughs)

Jane Carpenter

Jane Carpenter

Would you say that the activity of making art is itself a meditation practice?

Sue Hammond West

Sue Hammond West

SHW: Well, making art could be meditation in action. You could actually go at it for all the wrong reasons–for all the self-loathing and neurotic tendencies–and actually come out on the other side with clarity. It could take a while, depending on the depth of the feelings that you’re working through, but there’s always that possibility.

So, it can be beneficial like sitting…

JC: Absolutely, it can. For some people, sitting is not going to be their choice to experience their life fully. Art is a method, we could say, for bringing oneself into the present moment. It can be contemplative practice, or, as Sue was saying, meditation in action.

So, making art and meditating can have similar results. I have the feeling, though, that striving for that result may not be the point.

SHW: Well, the nice thing about meditation, and art as well, is that you can do it for no result. When you surrender to the fact that there’s no right or wrong answer, and simply allow whatever is happening to happen, that’s when something shifts in your being.

What would you say are some of the most common obstacles to the artistic process being a meditation in action?

JC: One thing that comes to mind is self-consciousness, or a goal-orientated approach. If there is any expectation–of perfection, or getting a particular concept across to the audience, or any outcome at all–then one is a bit ahead of themselves.

SMC: Can you describe an alternative approach?

JC: We can be willing to look at something that looks really strange and be curious about it as opposed to labeling it “bad,” or “not as good as the other person’s.” So I think with a true artist, with this approach, we’re going beyond a dualistic, “good” and “bad,” view.

So, are all works of art equal?

JC: It isn’t some kind of naive “everything is great” attitude. Some pieces will work, and some won’t. But the process is much more alive.

Finally, how will the practices utilized in this retreat work with the obstacle of self-consciousness and goal oriented-view?

SHW: We’ll be doing some sitting practice. We’ll be exploring the five wisdom energies, or emotions, in terms of embracing life. And so, I would say that we’re going to be covering the different types of thinking processes and we’ll be talking about the dualistic tendency of those and giving some experiential training on how to become non-attached to those–how to create the clarity of mind that we’re talking about that is the quality that we want to come at making our art from.

JC: We’ll explore questions like: What if emotions do arise when we’re doing art and we don’t reject them? Could we actually feel joy or delight in expressing ourselves fully? So, I think that we’ll be inviting people to play, actually. There will be different disciplines, and when you put it all together, it allows people to be fearless because there is no judgment in the environment. So there is no need to be self-consciousness.

Seems like nourishing situation.

JC: When we work like this we actually find that people retrieve parts of themselves that they haven’t experienced for a long time. Things can actually fall away–that judgment, or even judging the judger. So, we hope that there is a sense of inviting people to really enjoy themselves.

Discipline and enjoyment seem like sort of an odd couple.

JC: There’s an expression that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used, which is “discipline and delight.” So often when we talk about discipline we think about burden and sacrifice and this heaviness. I think in the workshop we’re going to be doing, the discipline of meditation and art brings delight. That’s why we do it!

SHW: Ultimately, it’s creating an environment for people to arise completely from where they are and just to notice who they are in the moment.

 

Sue Hammond West is a painter and mixed media artist who explores consciousness, quantum physics and the phenomenology of being. Her exhibitions include Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art; Beacon Street Gallery, Chicago; and the University of Notre Dame Isis Gallery. She is director of the School of the Arts at Naropa University.

Jane Carpenter began the study of Tibetan Buddhism and Maitri Space Awareness with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1975. She has taught the practice as an Associate Professor at Naropa University and internationally for over 25 years. Jane leads workshops on Dharma Art, Ikebana, and Contemplative Psychology.

Jane Carpenter and Sue Hammond West will lead Creative Wisdom: Maitri and Art, November 15-17. To learn more, Click Here

Interview with Cyndi Lee

 

cyndi leeShambhala Mountain Center is excited to host May I Be Happy: A Yoga and Meditation Workshop for Women August 30- September 2 with influential yoga teacher and writer, Cyndi Lee. She will give a talk and book signing in Boulder Colorado on August 29th.

Tell us about the beginnings of your yoga career and why you became passionate about the practice.

My yoga teaching career began in 1978 when I first arrived in New York City and realized that my $60 weekly paycheck from the Whitney Museum was not going to cut it. So I got a job teaching yoga at a little gym in the Village. For much of my professional dancing career, I taught yoga “on the side” instead of being a waitress like most dancers. When I met Gelek Rimpoche in the late 80s my mind turned to the dharma, and my dances started looking more like yoga than modern dance. My last concert was done in collaboration with my dharma brother, Allen Ginsberg, a long time student of both Chogyam Trungpa and Gelek Rinpoche. After that concert, I stopped dancing and started teaching yoga full-time.

My style of yoga evolved organically from my own background. I called it OM yoga: alignment-based vinyasa grounded in the dharma practices of mindfulness and compassion. After 15 years, I closed my NYC studio. OM yoga Center, to devote more time to personal practice. But I still teach OM teacher trainings, retreats, workshops all over the world and in 2012 I co-founded True Nature, a yoga and music festival based in Japan.

What was the inspiration for writing May I Be Happy?

May I Be Happy was originally titled I Hate My Body. I had an epiphany one day that my ever present inner voice, you know, that one that was always criticizing my body (too fat, too thin, too weak, too tight, too loose, blah blah blah) was a form of suffering. I had learned from my Buddhist studies that Suffering Exists and also that we create our own suffering. So I took a look at that and decided that it was not ok for me to continue to create this suffering around my body. I had to learn to let it go and to love my body. That is what inspired me to write this book. It was not until I lived the story of the book that I found the fruition of the quest and the ultimate title of the book.

Has this project expanded beyond your original intentions?

Well, when I started writing the book I did not know how I was going to turn this thing around. So finding the maitri practice as a personal path toward a more joyful life was a surprise. I also didn’t know that this book would resonate so strongly with so many people. I’ve heard from tons of people, all ages, men and women, that they have been touched and inspired by the book. So I have started teaching May I Be Happy classes and workshops and that has been very powerful.

What advice would you give to our readers on how to be happy?

Read my book! Come to the retreat!

Cyndi Lee’s newest book is the The New York Times critically acclaimed May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga and Changing My Mind. She writes regularly for Yoga Journal, Shambhala Sun, Yoga International and Tricycle Magazine. Her frequent TV appearances include the Dr. Oz Show; Live with Regis and Kathie Lee; Good Morning, America and she has a cameo in Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun video, which she choreographed in 1983. Cyndi holds an MFA in Dance from UC Irvine and is a long time student of Gelek Rimpoche. Cyndi Lee is the first female Western yoga teacher to fully integrate yoga asana and Tibetan Buddhism in her practice and teaching.