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Self-Not Self and the Creative Process: Marcia Rose

Dharma Talk given at Upaya Zen Center, June 27, 2012

Probably to each of us has come some unexpected, unsuspected, & maybe even exceptional moments during times of simple presence – moments of a clear unfettered attention – which we could call moments of spiritual attention. Our heart/mind opens & relaxes…eases in the midst of a simple direct presence with things….and it seems that often it’s in the world of nature where this happens for us most easily…at least at first.

At times during these moments of spiritual attention – it’s as though we fall through ordinary appearances. We fall through ‘ourselves’ – fall through our usual habitual selves – into an intuitive place of the essence of things. We may find that our heart, our mind opens with an unfettered receptivity, a kind of ‘radical acceptance’ into a deep sense of connection & selflessness…or what is sometimes described as a wholesome emptiness…inwardly & outwardly.

It’s in these moments that we might touch the boundlessness, the wonder, the very transient, constantly changing radiance of life. For maybe just a moment – we might dissolve with a boundless heart/mind out of our seemingly separate, solid, static sense of self; into the surprise of the moment….the unexpected surprise of the reflection of the truth & wonder of it all, the just is-ness of it all….the surprise of a momentary experience of a ‘not separate self’…the surprise of a healthy emptiness…an unconditional moment…waking up in the reflection of the heart/the mind’s true connection. This is where the essential energy of creativity resides & where it blossoms from.

Our meditation practice with its roots in mindfulness & investigation…be it Zen practice or Insight Practice/Vipassana Practice (which is the tradition that I’m rooted in)…is what develops & sets up the internal conditions for the blossoming of wisdom & creative expression in its myriad manifestations throughout the whole of our life.

In light of our discussion this evening, I’d like to offer you a definition of mindfulness that I think may be very helpful…in that mindful presence is a powerful way of changing our mind/changing our heart…& thus changing the way that we relate to ourselves, people, things, & situations in this world. Connecting with an open-hearted clear awareness is what’s needed in all instances…”as a seasoning of salt is needed in all sauces”…the metaphor the Buddha used in relationship to the necessity of mindfulness.

Definition of Mindfulness: Mindful awareness is about paying a kind of extraordinary attention…a non-judging, non-manipulative, non-grasping, non-rejecting attention to present moment experience…both our inner experience & in relationship to outer phenomena as well.

And sometime this might feel kind of like a magical relationship to thing…though I don’t mean the magician’s magic that creates an illusion & then pulls us into that illusion. The seeming magic of mindfulness is the magic of a connected, interested, openhearted, mindful presence that takes us out of the illusion, out of delusion & brings us directly into reality.

The other essential aspect of our practice that moves the heart & mind out of its habitual relationships & reactions…& towards the blossoming of wisdom & creative expression is what we could call the activity mindfulness…& this is investigation…the discerning aspect of mindfulness. This active aspect of mindfulness is what clearly illuminates the object of our mindfulness….lighting up all of our sense door & mental experiences right into their core.

With mindfulness & investigation we find that the darkness of ‘not seeing’…the darkness of delusion & ignorance is dispelled. When things are brightly lit, so to say, what is already present is then clearly seen/is known…& confusion is dispelled. What this means is that we experience directly…meaning that we experience things directly without the mediation of concept.

Practice itself is very akin to creative process…which as many of us here know is a vehicle for peeling away the layers of our habitual conditioned perceptions & reactions.

And so for most of the rest of our discussion this evening I’d like to more specifically explore the creative process as practice…with mindfulness & investigation being the roots from which stem the beautiful blossoms of wisdom & creative expression in its myriad manifestations.

Creative process as an aspect of our practice is potentially a vehicle for peeling away the layers of our habitual conditioned perceptions & reactions…& a vehicle that has great potential for revealing the interdependent & selfless nature of all physical & mental phenomena.

So for instance, whether it be the immediacy & spontaneity of moment to moment creative visceral response through the moving body…or via receiving what is seen with the eye without interposing the ‘self‘ – meaning contacting things directly, letting the hand & the pencil follow what the eye sees without the thought of ‘making’ a picture or the thought of ‘being’ creative…or be it trusting the process of thought & words arising as though from nowhere/from no-one, thus creating the conditions for the immediacy & spontaneity of simply letting writing flow from this ‘empty space’…with each & all of these experiences being about engaging in creative process as practice.

In light of this, I think that it’s fair to say that the creative process is about forgetting what we’ve previously learned…which is a necessary step in responding more directly & seeing & knowing more precisely.

So in using these examples we come to know that an aspect of creativity in moving, seeing, drawing & writing is forgetting – forgetting what we think we know about the subject, even forgetting what we have been taught…meaning in this case…what we think we know about drawing, or writing, or how we should or shouldn’t move the body.

Forgetting stops the mind from knowing in its habitual conditioned ways. At this point one is confronted with the object itself & ones usual way of knowing is arrested. The heart, the mind is open, receptive, appreciative…able to truly respond to the inner voice, the tone, the shape, the texture, with genuine authority & autonomy.

What keeps this openhearted “being in the presence” from happening? One artist’s reply was, “The fear of losing control.” I think that many people experience ‘not knowing’ as feeling dumb, but I have to say that some of the most extraordinary experiences that I’ve had…in which truth was revealed to me…that all of these experiences had the quality of ‘bearing witness’…of just simply being there/being here with tremendous & yet relaxed interest…meaning a very openhearted connected mindful attention & discernment rooted in humility & no need to make meaning. In our practice…& this includes the creative process as practice…until we can suspend the need for meaning we can’t experience direct revelation/we can’t experience insight/wisdom.

Though without a doubt there’s an ancient & subconscious urge for creative life & inventiveness in every single one of us from our very beginnings, it’s not so easy to be unarmed…to be without our habitual ways & self-centered identifications. Fear can sometimes leap up in us…& so we train the heart/we train the mind slowly & with great care to clearly see the nature of our constraints & to let go.

The poet Rilke exhorts us to return to things themselves, but the way to them can be difficult as we’re faced with ourself…our seemingly set & solid ‘self’. It seems that we’re over-trained regarding ‘ourselves’. We are usually the center of our attention; consequently it can be very difficult to “come & see“- as the Buddha invites us…to “come & see” beyond this notion of a ‘self’.

Engaging in the creative process with joyful interest & openhearted mindfulness can be a wonderful vehicle towards freeing up honesty, authenticity, & the essence energy of creativity…all of which helps to create the conditions that allow the direct revelation of insight into ‘way of things’.

I’ve learned a lot from children in this arena. In my early 30’s I taught art at an alternative school for some years. The 5 to 8 yr. olds loved painting. Sometimes I asked them to paint in relationship to a particular theme, but often it was just free expression painting. One morning as I was walking around looking & commenting on various paintings in process & those that were already finished…one little boy said “You always like all our paintings. How come?” This little boy noticed something & asked the right question.

Children sometime have a way of saying things that stop us in our tracks. “Yes I do”, I thought, “How come?” I don’t remember exactly what I said to him, but something about honesty & expressing from inside…& how could I not feel anything but appreciation. I could ask questions & occasionally make suggestions, but there wasn’t anything to dislike or feel critical about because what each person painted was their honest expression at that moment. He seemed to understand – shook his head up & down & kind of beamed at me.

As adults, can we be so ‘unarmed’ in our creative expression, while at the same time being mindful & seeing clearly…receptive to the ‘right answers’ that show up to our perennial questions regarding the way towards being truly happy & at ease in this life.

Can we be so ‘unarmed’ so as to allow the life force within us to catalyze into creative life with a purity & intensity devoid of personal pride or self-judgment…no ‘conceit of self’…& simply be what/who we are by birth-right…?

One of the creative endeavors that has been part of my life off & on over the years since I was in my early 20’s is the making of portrait sculpture with a particular person being the live model for each piece of work. This work has been a deep, powerful, & direct practice…& a metaphor of practice for me…particularly in relationship to the cultivation of mindfulness, investigation & discernment, effort, joy, tranquility, concentration & wisdom…((which are the 7 factors of enlightenment)). So just to share a little of this, as I think it may be a useful illustration in the context of our discussion.

In order to create a likeness of a person in clay, a tremendous depth of mindful investigation must take place. A head, its shape, the neck & shoulders…the face…

How to see it as a whole & then know it…both in its wholeness & in its particulars…so that the seeing & knowing can be transferred through the eyes, mind, heart & body…out through the hands & fingers into the clay…a daunting & actually impossible task if one doesn’t begin to see what one is looking at simply as hundreds, maybe thousands of relationships that actually change with each angle of seeing.

And so the subject’s head & face begin to break down into a series of relational forms…forms that exist only in spatial relationship to each other. There’s no head, no face, no person as we ordinarily know it, …there are just a series of relationships to be known. It’s a very intimate process…much more so than if I just keep looking at the whole form. The completely unique characteristics of the face in front of me become very clearly & deeply known, but not as any fixed or separate entity.

And the universals of all human faces become known quite intimately. At the same time, the concepts of solidity, fixedness & separateness lose their habitual potency & actually quite thoroughly fall away in moments.

What is this nose, this eye, this chin…any nose, any eye, any chin? Seeing & knowing through the microscope of an openhearted & deeply connected mindful investigation from revolving angles moment after moment.

Seeing & knowing the space between the inside corner of an eye in relation to the downward slope of the eye’s lower edge…in relation to the bulging curvature of the eye ball as it rounds out to touch the outer edge & corner of the skin around the eye…& on & on…with all of this seeing & knowing coming out of my fingers into forming the clay little by little…& as though magically, a face emerges out of the clay…a face that bears the likeness & projects some quality of the liveliness of this human being sitting in front of me. It’s not so easy to render this creative process into words…so I hope that it’s been at least somewhat communicated & helpful for you.

As I’ve already mentioned, the practice of Insight is itself an art…& in many ways very close to the creative process…as I’m sure some of you are aware of.

During one particular time period when I was deeply immersed in sculpture work I went to see a film at a movie theater. I was quite struck that evening by all the faces of all the people in the lobby…each one having all the same equipment…noses, eyes, mouths, cheeks, chins, foreheads…& yet each person’s face being totally unique just based on the tiny nuances of how all the parts were interrelated. My awareness that evening jumping back & forth…seeing the diversity in the ‘one’ & ‘one’ in the diversity. That evening they were not separate.

In the Avatamsaka Sutra/The Flower Adornment Sutra which is revered as a great treasure of sensual imagery & considered to be one of the highest teachings of the Buddha in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism…there is a short section that elaborates on my brief & small experience. It says: “The Bodhisatava sees the interdependent nature of all things, sees in one Dharma all Dharmas…sees in all Dharmas the one Dharma; sees the multiplicity in the one & the one in the multiplicity…sees the one in the immeasurable & the immeasurable in the one (the ‘immeasurable meaning the indescribable/the flow…the process of life as it unfolds). Birth & existence of all Dharmas is of a changing nature & thus unreal & cannot touch the enlightened ones.

The nature of things quite naturally reveals itself. It’s not hidden. We enter into the mystery through the intimacy of our practice, rather than staying at a distance – rather than staying separate from it.

Quote from Yanagi – Japanese philosopher & teacher of ‘The Way of Tea’ that speaks about this in a lucid & succinct way…. “They saw. Before all else, they saw. They were able to see. Ancient mysteries flew from this wellspring of seeing.

There is a difference between the person with a mind unconsciously steeped in “me”, “mine”, & “I”, & the one who lives, sees, senses, feels & knows through a mind steeped in mindful awareness & investigation of states of body & mind. The difference is that in the narrowness of the mind steeped in “me”, “mine” and “I”, there is a strong & sticky identification with all the hopes & fears that arise…which is a very painful place to live ones’ life from.

When the mind/the heart is steeped in the factors of mindfulness & investigation, one isn’t very often caught or thrown off, ruffled or confused by inner & outer events. We see, we sense, we feel what is. We know it beyond the seeming appearances. We aren’t caught nearly as often by hopes & fears in relation to the moment’s experiences. They come. We let them go, as they naturally do anyway.

Our practice affords us the great potential gift not clinging…not being identified with & attached to experience all of the time. What is, is just what is…moment to moment…more & more often.

Mindfulness, direct investigation & discrimination of experience are what bring the deepest understanding. Otherwise our understanding is based only on the intellect. It’s merely cerebral understanding…a kind of imaginary understanding.

And as most of you know, at least some of the time, it’s impossible to think our way out of tension, stress, confusion. It’s impossible to think our way out of suffering. And it’s impossible to think our way into truly letting go. We can’t think our way to liberation.

Awakening is beyond or beneath the intellect. It’s beyond, or beneath concept, so how can we possibly use concept to get us there? When insight is born, when understanding is born, it’s deep & integrated & simple…‘It’s cellular’, as someone once described their experience to me.

The Great Indian teacher Nisargadata Maharaj tells us, “The mind, the thinking mind, is interested in what happens, while mindful awareness is interested in the mind/the heart….the child is after the toy, but the mother watches the child, not the toy.

As awakening beings, we’re moving toward our inheritance from the Buddha…by simply becoming “a real human being” a beautiful description that Sayadaw U Pandita uses for one who is awake…a wise, openhearted & caring human being with our innate capacity for creativity & inventiveness flowing freely….& this is the greatest gift that we can offer to this world.

Marcia Rose is the Founder, Guiding Teacher & Executive Director of The Mountain Hermitage in Taos, New Mexico.

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Living the Dharma on a Cellular Level

Jean Smith talks with TMH staff member Kathy Lyons….

Kathy: Would you speak about your relationship to The Mountain Hermitage?
Jean: Yes. When Marcia Rose first had a vision for The Mountain Hermitage, she talked with me about it and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. I was so taken with the idea of making the Dharma accessible to all kinds of people in a beautiful, intimate setting with good teachers and a good relationship to nature. So I wanted to be part of it… and after I went to my first Mountain Hermitage retreats, I never left it. That was at least 10 years ago, it may have been 12, but it’s a good long while.

K: Were you involved with the Dharma before?
J: I was. I got involved with the Dharma when I was young. Sort of in a romance with “The Dharma Bums” and Zen Buddhism and that sort of thing. Then when I was in my early 40’s, I had an experience that got me involved in the Dharma from the neck down – it made that 18 inch drop from my head to my heart, so that I then had a heart-mind, whereas before I had only had a head. That experience was trekking in the Himalayas, coming into a very small village, and sitting for a couple of hours with a woman who was weaving. She was so completely mindful and involved in what she was doing… and I realized, “Wait a minute. This is a way of life. This is a way of relating to the world around you.” I knew then that she had something that I wanted, although I didn’t quite understand it at that point.

K: Was she a Tibetan Buddhist or Nepalese?
J: We were near the Tibetan border in Nepal. What I found in these small isolated villages was that people didn’t necessarily know what a Buddhist is. They knew who the Dalai Lama is, but they didn’t specifically identify themselves as Buddhist. There were some small gompas, some small monasteries, and they sometimes went to ceremonies there. But this was absolutely a way of life rather than something that would be called Buddhism. I think most telling was when I learned that these people had no word for “thank you.” You did what you were expected to do and it was beyond them. They could not imagine why anybody would thank anybody for doing these things that they ought to be doing anyway. And that, too, gave me an idea that there was something here that I wanted to know about. I wanted to be like that when I “grew up.”

I came back to this country and did what I always do – which was read every book I could find on the subject – which didn’t do me a whole lot. So then I started sitting, practicing meditation, going on retreats… and very, very slowly it moved into my heart-mind to the point that the Dharma became part of me at an absolute cellular level.

K: Were you in New Mexico during this period?
J: No, I was living in New York City and mostly I went for retreats up to the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA. My main teachers there were Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzburg, and also Sylvia Boorstein. I went on retreats as many times a year as I could get up there.

K: What were you doing in your other life?
J: My other life, I was in publishing… primarily college textbooks and humanities subjects. But I was also beginning to do some writing and some publishing on my own. And when I reached retirement, much earlier than I should have, I decided that I wanted to write the books. So I began, first of all, to edit books on Buddhism and then eventually to write books on Buddhism. Over a period of 30 years, I’ve published 10 books on Buddhism.

K: What makes you stick to the Dharma? You say it’s in your cells now, so I can imagine…
J: It’s definitely at the cellular level. It just simply made so much sense. There were so many metaphysical concepts and religious concepts out there, whereas the Dharma was just absolutely practical. And when I began to ask my major question — which was “What does this have to do with me?” – I always got an answer…and I always felt as if I had come home. And when I am involved with the Dharma, I am at home.

K: Any advice that you might give to beginning students?
J: I would say to get a tangerine and eat it mindfully. Because when you do that, when you peel it and see what it looks like and smells like and feels like, on the outside and the inside, when you break off a section and put it in your mouth, but don’t chew it yet… you suddenly discover that your tongue is doing very strange things. When you go through this and eat a tangerine this way, you’ll suddenly say something like: “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a tangerine before!” or “Where did you get these tangerines?” And you really get the idea that – just as that tangerine tastes, looks, smells, better than any tangerine you’ve ever had – you can realize that your entire life can be a tangerine.

K: That’s wonderful. I don’t know if you wanted to add anything else for our readers?
J: Yes… being able to go on Mountain Hermitage retreats has been one of the greatest blessings for me in the last 10 years because I found that I could practice in a way that was very much unstructured. My practice could take the shape that it needed to on any given day. I found these retreats infinitely more fulfilling than any retreat that I have ever been on, and I want them to be available to everyone.

Jean’s latest book Life is Spiritual Practice: Happiness through the 10 Perfections came out in February 2015 from Wisdom Publications.
For information on her other books, you can go to her website www.BuddhaBookSmith.com.

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