Entries Tagged as 'feeling stuck'

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.

Awake

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Awake

Awake awhile.

It does not have to be
Forever,
Right now.

Awake, my dear.
Be kind to your sleeping heart.

Take it out into the vast fields of Light
And let it breathe.

–Hafiz, from I Heard God Laughing – Renderings of Hafiz, Daniel Ladinsky

Days go by. I forget to paint. I forget to open my journal and scribble in my soul’s native language. I forget that the walk to work can be as sacred as my partner’s eyes, and the weekdays as filled with wonder as my heart when my nephew says, “I love you.”

This morning, though, a Wednesday and quite early, the sky was filled with plump pink clouds illuminated like floating ships of light. An old woman in office dress and heels scrambled across the street and jumped smiling to the curb as my car passed; instead of our differences, I saw myself in her, if I’m lucky, 40 years from now, still showing up to something meaningful–I hope–and smiling.

Two-and-a-half years into a very full-time job as a psychotherapist to people in significant pain and distress, I’m learning the value of refueling my own reserves, so I can be present for others from a place of groundedness and inspiration. Refueling in a busy work week takes more intentionality than I realized, and has required a commitment to questioning the frantic voice in my head that says there’s not enough time for me; there’s not enough time to be–there’s not even enough time to fully breathe.

Sometimes painting refuels me, but if I’m not careful, painting can become just another way of keeping busy, of producing a product, and of trying to prove myself.  So I have to make space to just doodle, journal, walk, and sit around, which isn’t easy for me to do. Not easy, but simple, and necessary. Paradoxically though, this unstructured time, with no agendas, can actually yield the richest fruit: Contacting life afresh, with its sweetness and profound uncertainties and difficulties. When I’m in that place, open and letting life reach me, I’m listening, I’m watching, I’m awake. Then painting or not painting, working or not working, doing or not doing: I am being.

Summer Bloom

Monday, September 29, 2014

Summer Bloom
36″ x 48″

 I left town for the weekend in despair over this painting, the colors in disharmony. My nine-year old nephew Mason had declared the piece a failure. “I don’t like the petals or the leaves,” he said, in a statement that condemned most of the painting. “The colors are wrong, too,” he added, not at all apologetically.

I agreed, but I didn’t know what to do; I couldn’t see where it needed to go next. The thought of the dumpster occurred, and possibly setting down my brushes for good. When these thoughts come, I usually just need a little space from the work. So I took it, and tried not to worry that I’d lost the touch and would perhaps never paint again.

When I returned from my trip, I approached the painting with fresh energy. As I worked, the flowers changed, and changed some more, and then, like a camera coming into clear focus, I found the right balance and the painting clicked into place.

Rarely is it my instinct to step away and give the important things in my life the time and space to ripen. I’ve been told I was impatient from the start, eager to grow up, eager to get on with it, whatever it was. However, the natural world takes its own time, and cannot be forced. The same is true of healing, and art, and the great unknowns of the long horizons of our lives. So I need the reminders–that life and its natural unfolding can be trusted.

This painting gave me that reminder.

When I give time and space to a process, I just might be met by a bloom.

The Next Right Step

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Next Right Step

Celebration
(Detail, unfinished)

Often in a painting, what I need to do next is the very thing I’ve been resisting. I got bored with Celebration well before I finished it. My painting style has changed since I started the piece several months ago. I keep setting the painting aside, making something else, and then returning to it in hopes that I’ll be able to finally reach a conclusion, but I still find it boring to work on. While working, I’ve heard a recurrent voice, “You might want to just wail on the canvas and see what happens. Also, try adding a bunch of lines to the trees, and use a smaller brush.”  I’ve dismissed those suggestions. “No way, that will take too much time! Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing.”  But indeed, to re-engage the painting, I’ve needed to listen to those suggestions–to roughen the surface with movement, texture, dimension, and line in the trees. I began this process on the left trees, and they’re not nearly done–this is just the beginning. But I come back to this again and again at the canvas: I have to risk and sacrifice the outdated image when it fails to reflect my integrity. This allows something more raw, organic, and honest to emerge.

In painting, I use a guiding principle I learned from my psychotherapy mentors: Notice boredom. I try to paint, teach, and do therapy in such a way that I’m not bored, and hopefully my students and clients aren’t bored either. There isn’t anything wrong with boredom per se, it simply may indicate being less than fully engaged.

 I need to experience energy as I paint. When I follow the energy where it leads and listen to what it asks of me, I re-engage in the process and am often happier with the results.

 Noticing and following the energy to a sense of completion is a hallmark of process in Gestalt therapy and other experiential modalities. Often, the way into a deeper, more energetic process is to acknowledge disengagement/boredom, which feels risky because it’s exposing. But the great thing is, when we do take risks to acknowledge where we are, even if we are bored, BAM! There’s suddenly energy again, and we’re off and running somewhere interesting.

I’ll keep you posted on how Celebration unfolds from here.

Flowers (part 1)

Thursday, July 31, 2014

flowers 1

“Easy is right. Begin right and you are easy. Continue easy and you are right.
The right way to go easy is to forget the right way and forget that the going is easy.”
Chuang Tzu

After getting irritated and bored with the painting in Minutia post, I started this painting with the intention of maintaining interest and curiosity throughout the process.  For me, this means following the enigmatic advice from Chuang Tzu.

I love what Tzu suggests about the natural flow of life energy and the creative process, and about the need to let go of attachment the idea of “the natural flow of life energy.” I memorized this quote years ago, and I repeat it to myself during times on the path where things don’t feel easy, and I seem to have lost the “right” way. It usually helps me soften and find my footing again, find my energy to keep going.

I’ll post my work on this painting each day until it’s finished, using Tzu’s poem as a compass. Stay tuned if you’d like to see what happens.

Easy is right.

When I Get Stuck (part 2)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When I Get Stuck 2

This is the painting that came out after I applied the “just for me” treatment. I loved it. Then I sold it. So I guess it wasn’t just for me after all. But I did get to keep what the painting taught me; those lessons weren’t just for me, either, but they were–and are–certainly mine to use.

When I Get Stuck (part 1)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When I Get Stuck 1

When I get stuck or feel lost in a painting (like when I snapped this photo), I tell myself that the painting is just for me, that I never have to show it to anyone else. I tell myself this again and again–a salve for that nervous, self-conscious part of me that’s hovering over my right shoulder, whispering encouraging things like, “Abandon all hope” and, “The dumpster is only a short walk up the street; no one will see you if you go under the cover of darkness to discard this abomination.”

Also, friends help. Friends have happened by just in time to save paintings I’d placed on the curb. They hang these paintings in their homes, and tell their visitors that I’m the artist who made them. I don’t like this. Friends have stopped in when I’m so frustrated that I’m threatening the garbage. “Don’t give up!” they say. “It’s got potential. Stay with it. Or give it a rest and come back to it. But please don’t throw it away.”

What I do then is a sort of mental dump. I imagine myself throwing the painting away, and then I give myself permission to be as wild and raw with the remaining surface as I want to be. I decide it’s no longer precious; there’s nothing to preserve. I wail. And usually, those are the ones I wind up loving the most. So there’s that.

Because of this, I do try to finish every painting I start, try to wrestle my way to the end and live with the consequences of what’s emerged. Almost always, telling myself that a piece is just for me frees me up to paint more fearlessly, which in and of itself is a kind of triumph. And often, by the time I’m done, I may not have made my all-time favorite piece, but I’ve succeeded in giving myself to it fully. Then, I can’t help but love the painting for what we’ve been through together, and for where we’ve come out just by coming through.

The Empty Canvas

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The empty canvas

“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.”
–Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Last night, an artist friend came for dinner and saw the blank canvas that’s been propped on my easel all week. “Oh, you’ve started a new painting!” she said. We laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s in that wonderful stage of endless possibilities.”

“Well, at least you know for sure what you’re committed to. Now it’s bound to happen.”

And she’s right!

When I’m between paintings and unsure what to paint next, I often hang a big blank canvas in my living room, in addition to the one I put on the easel. The barren space has its own appreciable presence, but also serves as a reminder that the stakes aren’t really so high–I only have to create something that contributes more to the atmosphere than 1) nothing, or 2) a large white rectangle.

That’s usually enough to get me going again.

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