When I am needing some cheap and easy stress reduction I take a couple of minutes to visit a website/blog called www.cuteoverload.com. This site is filled with absolutely adorable photos and videos of all types of critters from doggies to donkeys doing whatever it is that animals do. But the thing that is really the whipped cream on the sundae at Cute Overload is the written commentary that accompanies each of the animal pics. I’ve never been able to figure out who actually operates this site, but whoever it is obviously loves animals, and at the same time is extremely witty and irreverent.
One of the running gags on cute overload has to do with what the mysterious site owner calls “bag-hab”. If you have ever spent much time around cats you have probably witnessed how some of them will go absolutely crazy playing with a large paper bag. Sometimes they will spend HOURS getting inside the bag and getting out of the bag, inside and out, again and again. It’s pretty funny to think about how this could begin to resemble the behavior of an addict who just can’t seem to get enough of that “bag high”, hence the reference to some out-of-control kitties eventually needing to be carted off to “bag-hab.”
When I began to write this month’s article I started to think about how even though people come to my intuitive painting classes because they want to be creatively free and not so enslaved by the need for perfection and control, there is still an extremely seductive pull for most people around the issue of technique . They want the sense of liberation that comes when you let your right brain lead the way , but can’t seem to quite let go of the siren call of the promise of a beautiful painting. The need to feel like they have good or even great technique can be so compelling that it’s not TOO much of a stretch to begin to see this desire as compulsive or addictive. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that many of the signs and symptoms of addict behavior are there such as looking furtively around the room salivating after someone else’s perceived gorgeous technique, or sneaking in photos or pictures of images to copy, even though part of the practice of intuitive painting is to paint solely from your inner promptings. So I started to wonder if maybe there needs to be a “technique-hab” program for those folks who are trying to break their dependence on the obsession with highly developed technique!
One of the ways that I know the addiction is beginning to take hold is when I start to hear a lot of complaining from my students that has to do with how the painting is just not turning out the way that they want it to. They begin fixating on how it’s not pretty enough, or it doesn’t look like “real art” ( whatever that is supposed to mean), it’s too primitive, or too stiff, or too childish. Something is always wrong or something could always be better.
The big secret is that all artists feel this way. Even people who have what appears to be flawless technique ( to the envious outside observer) can’t make something look the way they want it to hardly EVER. In fact, people who have had some art training usually suffer from the fiction of inadequacy even worse than people who have no training at all because now their expectations are that much higher.
The truth about skill, technique and talent is that you already have all of them at your disposal when you paint. No matter what you may tell yourself, you DO have technique. You can’t put a brush with paint on a piece of paper and not have some kind of technique. People convince themselves that they have none of those things when what is really going on is that they have a whole bunch of negative opinions about the level of skill that they already possess. What they are listening to is the voice of the inner critic telling them that their natural self expression is just not quite up to snuff.
So much of what I see in my students is a self inflicted suffering. They constantly punish themselves with internal messages that tell them that their painting is just no good. And then they let themselves become identified with the painting. Since they fervently believe that their painting isn’t any good, they make the leap into believing that THEY must not be any good.
Of course, this kind of thinking shows up in more places than just painting. For example if you let yourself get identified with your job, and your job is going well and you are making a lot of money then that must mean that you are OK. But if you get laid off , your self esteem takes an automatic nose dive into the nearest, deepest hole. Or having your positive OR negative feelings about your self be connected to your weight and the number on the scale or how many words you wrote today ( if you are a writer) is usually about as much fun as being on a rollercoaster ride when you’ve got a bad case of motion sickness. The problem with identifying with those external things is that they are constantly changing. Your weight, salary and word count all fluctuate and basing your sense of self esteem and self worth on those externals is just one more way to make yourself crazy.
So it is helpful from both a spiritual and a mental health perspective to identify with something that is more constant. Your creativity and your connection to spirit is something that is always there. It doesn’t go away. You go away from it .
When we are worrying about things like our lack of technical abilities we are approaching our creative process from the left side of the brain which is also the home of the judging mind otherwise known as the ego. And the ego is pretty much always unhappy with everything that we do on general principals. If we have done it, there must be something wrong with it.
I recently had an enlightening experience with one of my students that was a perfect example of this. She walked into my studio early for a class and saw a painting that I had left hanging up on one of the easels. She stopped and looked at the painting for a moment and then turned to me and said, “Now, that is a great painting. I would be really, really happy if only I could someday paint like that.” I looked back at her feeling somewhat confused and said ” Uh, Frances….that IS your painting!” We got a good laugh out of the whole thing, but it made it shockingly clear how difficult it was for her to appreciate and acknowledge her own creative work as long as she knew it was hers!
According to Buddhist teaching the first noble truth is that life is suffering. Now, when I think of the word suffering what comes to mind are usually pretty bad things, like being abused as a child, going through round after round of chemotherapy, or losing someone you love . Suffering is intense and overwhelming and while there is a great deal of true suffering in the world, my day to day life, and the lives of most people that I know, only rarely reaches that level of crescendo that I would actually call suffering.
In a delightful book called Hard Core Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality author, spiritual teacher and former punk rock musician Brad Warner talks about how the actual meaning of the word that is usually translated as suffering is something along the lines of “unsatisfactory experience”. In other words, we walk around feeling vaguely discontented most of the time. We are just never happy! And why are we never happy? Because we have lots of ideas about how our life is supposed to be. We imagine that a certain experience is going to give us a particular kind of satisfaction and fulfillment and when that doesn’t happen ( and it never does) we think that something is wrong. And we just try again from a different angle “Well, maybe if I do it THIS way, I’ll finally get it to work.”
This is what is so great about the intuitive painting process. When you are painting with the intention of trying to remain at least SOMEWHAT conscious you are constantly being brought face to face with the fact that the ego is ALWAYS disappointed. It always wants things to be different or better than they are. It’s stock in trade is disatisfaction. It is NEVER content or fulfilled. And you are constantly being forced to look at the truth that things just don’t turn out the way that you want them to.
For example, you decide to draw a body based on this amazing dream that you had the night before where you saw a sleek figure, full of power and beauty, radiating brilliant golden light. So you pick up a paintbrush and you start to paint, filled with excitement about this glorious image that is soon to be born out of your brush. This fabulous being that once you paint it, is going to make you feel like you are a fabulous person. In that place of possibility, where you are still in the fantasy, everything is grand! And then you start moving the brush on the paper. And the sleek figure comes out kind of lumpy, and the brilliant golden light starts to drip down the page, and you find yourself getting very frustrated and angry because this darned painting is JUST NOT WORKING OUT. And that’s when you start to think about maybe going to art school and learning some REAL technique, because only then will you be truly happy with your art.
We are so fervently attached to this particular little fiction. We so want to believe that it is somehow in our power to control things so that we can get exactly what we want and then, and ONLY then can we finally be happy. We just don’t get it. We don’t want to believe that the only way that we can truly be happy is to allow ourselves to wholeheartedly accept things exactly the way that they are. And that includes your lumpy celestial being with drippy light rays!
This approach to painting is about risking jumping into the raw, uninhibited and uncultivated experience of creativity. And it’s also about accepting, with mercy and compassion, wherever you are in any given moment. It’s about embracing your less than perfect imagery and your current level of technique. If you watch very young children paint, they don’t fuss over every last thing that comes out of them. They create, they express and they move on. There is a fluidity in their process which is something that we are trying to get back to here.
When you are feeling vexed and disgruntled by your painting process you may think that the problem is a lack of skill. But the real problem is that when you are preoccupied with the issue of technical mastery, it is a way to distance yourself from the transformative power of the naked and unvarnished creative process. It’s scary to be identified with the energy of creativity itself just as it’s scary to be identified with spirit. It’s much safer and weirdly comfortable to see yourself as someone who is inadequate, or less than, or just not good enough, which is the only way that you CAN feel if you are identified with the fearful, judgmental self. And that is what we are all truly addicted to!!!
So if you think that you can take that first step and admit that “I am a technique addict and my creative life has become unmanageable”, if you are finally ready to take that trip to “technique-hab”, let me know. I can help. And, believe me, your creative spirit will thank you for it!
Copyright © Chris Zydel 2008