By walking we make the road,
and looking back
we see the way
which will never be trodden again.
Wanderer, there is no road—
Only foam in the sea.
Every few months I feel the urge to leave behind the business and distractions of city life for a country retreat, all to myself. The solitude and connection with nature serve to refresh my art and writing practice and deepen my meditation, and it's a relief to compose my review email from "far away" . Roz, a sangha friend from the Scottish Highlands, has made her cottage in Ardnamurchan available for solitary retreats and, fortuitously, it's free when I need it. It's located near the shore of Loch Sunart, and while warm and cosy, the decor exudes an old-fashioned aesthetic of patterns and styles.
Roz recently inherited the cabin from her mother and plans to renovate it at some point. I'm grateful that I don't have such responsibilities here and I can continue my practice no matter what. I quickly rearrange things to suit my needs, moving the extendable dining table from the dark kitchen into the living room, covering it with a black spill-proof trash bag, and setting up a sanctuary in the second bedroom facing the loch. I brought a bouquet of yellow tulips which I shared between two vases, hugging Roz's large wooden Buddha. During my week here, they gradually become plumper, without opening up completely.
Sunart is famous for its pockets of Atlantic rainforest, and for the first two days I seek out those wild places where the boundaries between tree trunks and rocks disappear under the ever-present spread of a fluffy, damp fleece of mosses. The oak trees are barely opening their orange-tinged buds – the same color as the Highland cattle in the field beside the cottage – some already turning golden green, the most hopeful hue. The cuckoo sings and the butterflies are dizzy, it's not raining, for once! It was what I longed for: nestled in the fragrant, thick, spongy forest floor (over my waterproof coat), my head resting on a stone pillar, padded with sphagnum moss. The lines from Mary Oliver's poem "Sleeping in the Forest" fill my mind like a mantra:
I thought the earth remembered me,
she took me back so tenderly,
arranging her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds.
I feel safe in this relative desert, just out of reach of the sounds of traffic, in touch with a primordial connection that calls me, "so tenderly", to surrender to the self-forgetfulness of sleep. Upon waking, I find the connection to mother earth has deepened into a slow-eyed, soft-fingered contentment. I linger to caress her supple, sun-dappled green skin, before getting up and doing something a little more purposeful, like coming home for lunch and doing some art or meditating.
Although I sometimes appreciate the simplicity of listening to recorded meditations, where “I” have to make fewer choices myself, it becomes clear after a while that I have to trust my own guiding voice. And certainly guidance is needed, because there are times along the way when it's easy for self-confidence to waver. In artistic creation and meditation, it can be daunting, for example, to face the inevitable periods of uncertainty, not knowing what to do or where to go next, or for what general purpose. Some inner parts like to sink into this space, an inner normalizer or results seeker, and they create, despite their good intentions, a tense atmosphere that is not conducive to the flow of creative energy. Somehow they need to be integrated into the process, simply throwing them out of the way won't work. As artists and meditators, we must come to value these explorations of the “underground,” as Robert MacFarlane calls it. Whether we literally explore caves and catacombs, or see them more metaphorically, "in the basement we have long placed what we fear and wish to lose, and what we love and wish to save." (Macfarlane, 8)
One day, towards the end of the week, I sat down with a small writing table in front of my place of meditation and put into language some of these often silent interior exhortations, these subtle nudges in certain directions. I found much of it equally relevant to meditation and the creative arts, and probably other aspects of life as well.
- Connect to your intention and hold it lightly. Make this part of the intention. It's obvious you're trying to do Something, while you have settled into a meditation posture, lit a candle and incense, or laid out paper and materials and tied your painting apron. It's understandable to feel a bit intimidated at this point, as you step out of the world of familiar task orientation into a different area, one that calls for a less utilitarian mindset. Don't cover up transient and uncomfortable feelings by adopting a strident false certainty about your purpose. You only prepare for struggle and disappointment. Instead, gently affirm what propels you toward emergent transformation, open up to the unknown, and salute your courage. There may be some specific ideas that you want to pursue, but that's all pretty tentative. You may find that the most helpful intentions relate to maintaining a continuity of qualities of awareness, such as openness and curiosity. Sometimes you may want to remember, without grasping it, the subtle sense of inspiration that once lifted you into a state of absorption.
- Trust the rhythm of your swing. Although many things are unknown, at the same time you are not starting from scratch. You've built momentum in your previous sessions, developed some expertise in some creative techniques, familiarized yourself with some meditative springboards, and you have to start somewhere. So you can just cover the paper with water-based inks that you like the look of, let it all flow, cover the ground, get something going. It will almost certainly be coated again, as the layers overlap. When writing, you can begin with a period of timed, smooth, continuous pen movements, simply putting words to paper. In meditation, it's a good idea to sit still for a while, with whatever is going on, without intervening, and then spend time connecting your posture to the energies of earth and heaven, stability and freedom. . That way, by repeatedly going back to those familiar inward or outward movements, confidence grows.
- Let everything be quite ordinary and based on the senses. Wanting to have a particular meditation experience or produce a masterpiece usually backfires. There is a lot of 'self' involved, which upon further investigation turns out to be the reluctance to experience what is really going on: a continuous stream of experiences, some pleasant, some unpleasant, most innocuous. One of the main characteristics of this flow is its impermanence, the one thing the self cannot easily come to terms with. This therefore creates inner scenarios, stories that have nothing to do with this present and transitory moment. It can be a relief to let go of any grand idea of attaining fame or hopes for love and recognition, or the latent fear that such desires may go unfulfilled, and instead look to the detail of the experience. observed: the way two colors interact with each other on paper, the way one phrase resonates against another, the felt sense of hands touching each other, the woven meditation blanket, and the coolness of the air.
- You lose. Sometimes the self, as a fixed sense of identity, is just naturally absent, all of you being fully absorbed in the activity. When you're a bit of a dreamer, there isn't a lot of self-centeredness either. Get used to how you feel and don't comment on it too loudly, if at all. We can relax into awareness without much of a separate observer and just allow the creative processes to unfold deliciously and effortlessly.
If you'd like to read more about this investigation into the similarities between creating art and meditation, check out the next episode in this column, which will cover topics like embracing the shadows, persisting in the doldrums, honoring our teachers, and getting stop when the going is good.