In trying to realize our true nature, we rub against the same paradox: We don't know that we already are what we are trying to become. In Zen, we say that each one of us is already a Buddha, a thoroughly enlightened being. It's the same with art. Each one of us is already an artist, whether we realize it or not. In fact, it doesn't matter if we realize it or not - this truth of perfection is still there. Engaging the creative process is a way of getting in touch with this truth, and to let it function in all areas of our lives. - John Daida Loori, The Zen of Creativity
"Where do you work?"
"I'm not really a professional journalist. I'm, uh," I stammer, "I'm here as a citizen journalist." There, it's out in the open.
"And here I thought bloggers were a myth," jokes one journalist. Many have never met the mythological blogger beast in the flesh. Rather than reveling in my differentness or being gracefully at ease, my outsider status makes me squirm with self-consciousness.
In truth, the sense of outsiderliness had settled in way before this conference began.
From the airport, I take a bus straight to Columbia University and figure I can walk to the theoretically nearby rented brownstone.
As I fumble with my baggage down the back alleys of Columbia, I corner an Indian gentleman ducking into his brownstone if he could tell me where 100 West would be. "It's on the other side of the park," pointing to the green expanse ahead. "But, I wouldn't walk in there now."
It's dusk. I follow some intrepid students down the steep side flanked by trees. I can hear every footfall on the stairs. Once across the park, I note that Morningside Park is a borderland. A threshold that separates us from them.
I am in heart of Harlem. Alone, feeling the sun lower into night, loaded down with too much luggage to be nimble.
I know my safety lay in my defenselessness, my openness, my ability to not distance myself. Yet those were merely fleeting thoughts, not my actual experience. The fact was I had arrived frozen.
I've been in more precarious situations. I've strolled through Oakland alone at night. I recall my solo trip by bus through Mexico and Guatemala. Crossing the borders there is also fraught with risk. As is traveling by highways. I'd been told when I was studying Spanish in Costa Rica that women should never travel alone to Guatemala. When I return home after seven weeks of traipsing, my mother shows me a news clipping. A vanload of Mormon missionaries were robbed, assaulted (and some killed) crossing Guatemala into Mexico during the same timeframe I visited.
That trip through Mexico and Guatemala started on the perfect foot. On arrival, I immersed myself in a four-day workshop (if you could call it that) with Miguel Ruiz (of The Four Agreements fame) at the ancient ruined city of Teotihuacan -- the name which translates to "the place where men become gods".
Standing at summit of the Pyramid of the Sun wasn't my first experience (nor last) of melting. Of a peaceful gentle outpouring of love that excluded no one. Of a self-forgetfulness that was graceful and took me beyond my limited sense of myself. It all began three years ago this summer. There was no single event that precipitated it. Although there were conditions for its blossoming. And it pervaded that whole summer of 2002. I've tried to recapture that openness, that freedom, that intrinsic sense of safety ever since.
Something had opened in me, and the techniques and activities of the workshop started to make sense. Minor [White] was guiding us to go beyond simply seeing images. He was inviting us to feel, to smell, to taste them. He was teaching us how to be photography...
But as the months passed, this new way of seeing and the feeling of peace that accompanied it receded, and my feelings of wholeness and well-being began to fade...
What had allowed the world to disappear so completely when I sat in front of the tree [during a workshop exercise]? Why did everything feel so right after that? Why did I feel at peace? And how did everything become cloudy again? - photographer and Zen priest John Daido Looori speaking of his first ever 'non-rational' photograpy workshop with Minor White, from The Zen of Creativity
"Why you looking so mean?" asks the older black man standing in the narrow median smack in the middle of Malcolm X Boulevard as traffic sped by late Saturday night. He's talking to me. I'm standing at the corner waiting (impatiently) to cross. My arms are folded. I've adopted an aloof stance that I presume helps New Yorkers feel safer. Lost in my thoughts, I'd missed my stop and had to walk the dark blocks filled with nefarious strangers to get to this corner. I hated standing still, a target.
An arrow of truth cuts through my delusion. My arms instinctly drop, the menacing frown softens. "I'm not mean," I reply. The traffic light changes and I cross. As I walk past him in the middle of the street, I chuckle lightly.
He adds, "I didn't say you were mean. Just looking mean." I nod in acknowledgment and gratefulness to the master before me.
When I was nine years old, I studied the clarinet with a professor of music. I practiced daily until I was sixteen. When I went off to join the navy, I forgot all about it. Some forty-five years later, one of my Zen students restored a beautiful clarinet and gave it to me as a birthday gift. When I opened it, the people gathered at my birthday party immediately asked me to play. I was very excited to be holding a clarinet after so many years, so I dove right in. I played an entire piece without missing a note. Rather, the piece played itself. Everyone applauded and egged me on to play more, but before I could begin, my brain clicked into gear. I haven't played in years. What if I make a mistake? What if I embarrass myself? And on and on. I tried to play and I fumbled. Once my mind began moving, worrying about what I was supposed to accomplish, I froze. - John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity
Anything I've learned of any consequence about marketing, about business, about art, about life, about myself, about you has arisen from a spontaneity that is self-forgetful. A spontaneity that's not about my protectiveness, possessiveness, defensiveness. I know when I am in that space of spontaneity. And I know when I feel as if I'm lost somewhere outside of it.
The way is not in the sky.
The way is in the heart. - Buddha, from The Dhammapada
Outsiderliness is deadly to connection. I could not write the last few days. It went beyond the mere fact that I was busy at a conference and out of town.
All art ceases at that point of disconnect. Even us unenlightened folks can recall moments in and out of time, as poet T.S. Eliot reminds. Times like this: "Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music." Times when there is no borderland separating the music from the listener. Where subject and object dissolve. Where inside and outside blur. Times when there is no borderland. No us and other.
I'm learning to trust that these moments aren't intermittent glimpses, but an unfolding into a way of being. I'm learning to trust as Loori says that: "In creating art, the rule of no rule, or spontaneity, refers to a process that is organic, intuitive, and uncultivated. Spontaneity is inherently human; it is wild and untaught."
I'm learning to trust that even as I close down, I'll naturally, spontaneously flow back to openness yet again. Loori reminds: "If I was asked to get rid of the Zen aesthetic and just keep one quality necessary to create art, I would say it's trust."
I'm learning to trust there is no outside.
Come said the muse,
Sing me a song no poet yet has chanted,
Sing me the universal.
In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the grossness and the slag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed Perfection.
- Walt Whitman, "Song of the Universal", from Leaves of Grass