Entries Tagged as 'attention'

On Uncertainty

Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Uncertainty

“When we’re hard on ourselves, it’s because we have a very rigid sense of what we’re supposed to be doing. We run from doubt because we feel we should know. Ironically, people want choice yet are afraid of uncertainty. But the truth is, If there is no doubt, there is no choice.”

Ellen Langer, from On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (p.65)

I’m stuck in this painting. It’s an abstraction of the prairie and not going well. I like certain elements, some of the shapes, mainly, but I know the colors are wrong, and when I consider working on it, I feel uncertain, lost. When I’m home in the studio and a painting is not going well, this lost, uncertain feeling can change the whole quality of my day; I sulk about the house, make more coffee, engage in a little emotional eating, leave my brushes in water too long. I peek back into the studio at the mess on the canvas, and wonder who I think I am, painting. I feel guilty–wasted time, wasted paint, wasted energy. Shouldn’t I be cleaning some river somewhere, or feeding orphans?

Usually, I need to get some distance and perspective, which I’ve been getting this week being back at work, to catch the energy again. Or, I need to do something radical to the canvas, like smear it with magenta stripes, just to break out of my funk and stop taking it all so seriously. What’s the real risk? It’s just a canvas, after all, not my entire life on the line. Yet at that precipice of creation, when I’m lost, I feel my life on the line. To move forward into the unknown, even just on the canvas, I feel I’m risking everything.

It’s helpful for me to pay attention to what I do when I feel uncertain–about an artistic direction, a professional issue, or a personal matter. Life is full of uncertainty, and uncertainty is inherently vulnerable. It’s tempting to deny or avoid experiencing the discomfort of uncertainty, and there are endless ways to distract.

Hanging out with uncertainty is of course an option, too, and perhaps the hardest, though potentially the most fruitful. As Wendell Barry wrote, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.” Similarly, the poet David Whyte speaks about sacred terrains of transition–that we need to cultivate an appreciation for times of deep uncertainty, where we are changing profoundly, but the new place hasn’t yet revealed itself. Pema Chodron writes about getting comfortable with uncertainty–trying to keep things loose and open when we’re feeling vulnerable about the unknown. My counseling mentor used to tell me that if I designed my life around feeling comfortable, I wouldn’t have a very interesting or rewarding life. He encouraged me to lean into uncertainty, and to accept the presence of doubt even in my greatest commitments.  “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” he’d ask, and then, “Can you be afraid and do that thing, anyway?”

As a counselor, I sit with people during their times of uncertainty and transition; I try to befriend the part of them that wants to know, but doesn’t know yet, the part that may need to retreat from risk, or venture boldly into it, or wait, uncomfortably, for a clear sense of direction. It’s easier to befriend this place, its discomforts and possibilities, in another than to befriend it in myself.

Painting, or any creative discipline, is a relatively safe way to play out these themes. But the larger arena of life carries the same themes and struggles, with far more at stake. I appreciate the way painting and life feed back into each other, until they become each other’s teachers, and I sit at their feet, watching and taking notes, uncomfortably learning to cultivate patience and acceptance while I wait for a glimpse of my next direction.

A Few From the Forest

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Few From The Forest

“Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?”

William Stafford, from You Reading This, Be Ready

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