Notes on Suffering; (trauma and narrative)

A year ago I wrote an essay called The Buddha’s Eight Simple Steps, which I intended to be my interpretation of Buddhism’s noble eightfold path. I wanted to share what I had learned through Buddhist study and practice, and I also wanted to challenge myself to express this understanding in my own words. I enjoyed writing the essay because the subject was so meaningful to me, but I had a much harder time writing succinctly than I had imagined. In particular, I struggled to define the Buddhist concept of suffering. 

I have my own understanding of what suffering is, and I recognize this understanding when I read others’ writing. But I still struggle to find the words to explain what this means to me. Suffering is perhaps the most difficult concept to describe, but it’s also worth getting right: it is the first truth of Buddhist philosophy, and it is the first step on the Buddhist path. 

The concept of suffering in Buddhism is notoriously difficult to define, I think, because it is so different from Western ideas of what suffering means. When we talk about suffering in America, we normally talk either about physical suffering: sickness, injury, fatigue, hunger or thirst, etc.; or about emotional or psychical suffering: sadness, despair, anger, anxiety, etc. These examples are all of suffering in the extreme—that is, we tend to think of suffering as an exception to “normal” experience. In my previous essay, I wrote this:

Even though my life seems comfortable enough, there are a lot of times when I’m sitting in traffic, or waiting in line at the Post Office when I think this really sucks. And in those moments, I start thinking about what it would be like to not have to deal with those things. Sometimes it’s something little like having to clean my dog’s vomit, but sometimes it’s worrying about having enough money for rent, or dealing with the death of someone close. All these frustrations, great or small, are an inherent part of life. We are always fighting against them, and this sense of discontent underlies all of our experiences.

In Buddhist philosophy, suffering refers to the rule, rather than the exception—“which is universal, and afflicts all people, regardless of their circumstances.”  Buddhist philosophy says that liberation from suffering can only come after accepting its reality.

I am happy with what I wrote a year ago. The problem I’m still having is feeling that I didn’t write enough. Trying to understand and live by the eightfold path has been so helpful for me. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve always enjoyed it, or that I even agree with all of it. I’m still trying to figure out what suffering means—to me—and how I can best practice accepting it as a daily part of my life. There is so much knowledge that we can draw on today—not only from Buddhism—in order to understand what suffering is. The following are some of the things I have been thinking about recently, trying to draw some of these discussions together.

 

One of the problems I have with the Buddhist explanation of suffering—in others’ writings, as well as my own—is that it is too easy to skip over the question of privilege. When I have conversations about Buddhist philosophy, I feel like I am always ignoring the fact that suffering affects people differently according to their circumstances. To generalize, those who have fewer privileges tend to suffer differently—from hunger, cold, sickness, and mental illness, etc.— than those who have greater privilege. When I wrote my essay, I felt it was important to acknowledge that suffering, in the Buddhist context, is a reality for the rich and healthy as well as for the poor.” But, of course, this does not mean that all suffering is equal. It was also important for me to acknowledge that I was writing from a position of privilege. Yes, I know what suffering is, but I’ve also never experienced real hunger, or fear, or poverty, etc., the way so many people do on a daily basis.

However, one of the problems I have with the way we talk about privilege, is that it’s easy to make the opposite assumption: that all people suffer differently, but that their suffering is defined by their privilege. It’s impossible to really talk about suffering and ignore the difference that privilege makes, but it’s also hard to talk about suffering if I assume that all people of the same race suffer in exactly the same way, or that all people of the same gender share the exact same experiences. If we define suffering solely in terms of privilege, it can make it difficult to realize that suffering is a universal—a human—problem, and a problem that is not solved by having privilege alone.

I don’t want to say that all suffering is equal. But I don’t want to put suffering into a hierarchy either. What I want to do is create a different discourse—one that can acknowledge the universality of suffering, but also acknowledge that suffering is always personal, unique, and specific.

 

This summer I have been working on a piece of writing about my grandmother’s life.  

My grandmother was born in San Jose, California, the youngest of five children, to immigrant farmers from Japan. During World War II, she and her family were removed from their homes and sent to live at Heart Mountain internment camp in the Wyoming desert. She was eleven years old when she left and didn’t return to San Jose until the beginning of high school. My grandmother didn’t talk often about camp, but I know that she carried the trauma of internment with her for the rest of her life, and it was something that was always present while I was growing up. During the last several years of her life, my grandmother often asked me to help her write her life story. I was young, then, and I didn’t understand why it was so important to her. Even when we asked her about the past, it seemed like she didn’t really want to remember.

For the past several months I have been going over the stories my grandmother left behind—looking through old photo albums and historical records—trying to understand what had made it so hard for her to remember. My grandma struggled for many reasons. Before the war and after, she struggled because she was Japanese, and because she was the daughter of poor, working immigrants. She struggled as a woman, who couldn’t afford college, and who worked the night shift for twenty years while raising her two sons. But she also struggled because she was stubborn. She had a hard time forgiving those who had hurt her, and she had a hard time letting go of the past.

For years, I was frustrated by my grandmother’s requests to help her write her story. I resented her for asking so much of me, but at the same time, making it so difficult. But I also felt guilty. I worried that my resentment made me selfish, and that I could have done more if I had stopped thinking about myself. I still wanted to write—I wished that I could have given her what she wanted—but her request felt like a burden that I couldn’t let go of.

When I started writing my grandmother’s story, I hoped that I might learn to understand her better. But I also hoped that, by writing, I might get rid of some of that guilt—for not having listened as well as I could have while she was alive. The writing I do now can never undo the past—I can’t change how I treated my grandmother any more than she could have changed her internment—but this writing has helped me to accept and express my own feelings, and in doing so, it has helped me to understand hers. Throughout her life, my grandmother felt hurt by the circumstances around her, and what she could not accept or understand became a burden, not only for her, but also for her children and for me. I know that the burden my grandmother passed on to me is not the same burden she carried. But I recognize that the burden I have felt is an extension of her trauma—those wounds from her past which she alone could not accept. 

 

When I say that I want a new way to talk about suffering, perhaps all I mean is that I want to be able to tell these stories. I want to feel free to tell these stories as honestly as possible, as truthfully as possible, and with as much care as possible. I want to be able to share these stories with others, without having to compare, or categorize. 

I used to think that my grandmother’s story was exceptional. And maybe—to a middle class, half-white, half-Japanese kid growing up in the Bay Area in the nineties—it was. But her story—of immigration, prejudice, and segregation—is as much a part of today’s story, in America and around the world, as it always has been. And even if it is exceptional, it doesn’t change the reality of it. I think that part of the reason I used to feel guilty was because I felt that my grandmother’s trauma separated me from her—that I could never really understand what she had been through. But I see now that it was the thing that tied us most together.

I am lucky to have grown up with so many advantages that my grandparents didn’t have. I haven’t been spared from suffering—nothing can protect anyone from getting hurt—but I have been given the opportunity, through my education and my community, to speak openly about my experiences and learn to share that narrative with others. I think that what frustrated my grandmother most was that she didn’t know how to tell her own story. For so much of her life she was too afraid to look back at the things that had hurt her. Of all the privileges I have, the opportunity for which I am most grateful is the opportunity to look back, and to tell the story that she could not. 

 

 

Moving Forward, Letting Go

When I was seventeen, and a senior in high school, I began writing the letter that my family sent out to friends and family every Christmas. I was just learning how to write—and excited about it!—and I thought that it was a privilege to be the voice that spoke for the family. For the last ten years I have continued to write this letter, and have continued, more or less, to consider it a privilege. Though this letter is sent to so many people that are important to me, in recent years I’ve also wondered what it means to write for the friends of my parents that I’ve never met. I’ve wondered what it means that I am not also writing this letter to my own friends. 

I didn’t write the letter this year. (My father seemed happy enough to take over.) I imagined, instead, that I would write on my own behalf. Of course, this didn’t happen. The last few weeks of the semester were busy and stressful, and while the first two weeks of my vacation were less stressful, they were not much less busy. On New Year’s Day, and over the past week, I’ve had some time to sit with myself and reflect on what the past year has brought, and what I want to do moving forward.

As happy as I’ve been with my first few months of graduate school, I ended the term looking forward to having a few weeks to stop and re-collect myself. I felt like I’d made so many mistakes and bad habits over the course of the semester, which had compounded to the point that I could no longer see how to address them, how they all fit together. This is a feeling I’m familiar with: after every college term I came home feeling that I needed to throw out all these mistakes and bad habits in order to gain a sense of freedom, the possibility of a new start. 

In the four years that I have been out of school, I’ve been lucky to glimpse that sense of freedom, even to live with it for periods of time. With mindfulness meditation I’ve begun learning how to watch these anxieties—the need to keep working, to say something, etc.—and to let them go. I’m learning that every moment can be an opportunity to let go and start anew. (This is the fundamental truth of mindfulness practice: that every breath—every moment—is both it’s own end and it’s own beginning.) Over the course of this semester I have been continually reminding myself to sit, and to breathe.

Much of my anxiety still comes from this feeling of too much, of not being able to see. Meditation practice has brought me more clarity, and a better ability to let go of the things that unnecessarily complicate my life and thoughts. The glimpses that I’ve had of this freedom have felt like a promise of equanimity: of a mind so clear and so focused that all things can be seen as equal, as one. But over the past few years I have wanted this clarity so much that I have failed to see how much I am really—still—struggling.

As I’ve learned to let go, I’ve become attached to the very idea of letting things go. In the face of too much, I’ve been dreaming of an ultimate simplicity, of a perfect, safe, emptiness. I’ve been dreaming that meditation might be the only thing I need to be happy.  I thought that detaching from my fears meant that these fears would go away, but I’ve been holding so tightly to these moments of clarity that I have only become more frustrated, more scared, as my fears continue to arise. 

When I first learned Buddhism’s four noble truths—the truth of suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path towards the cessation of suffering—I also failed to to grasp it’s essential paradox. Yes, there is a way to escape life’s suffering, but the only way to do so is to accept that this suffering is, fundamentally, in-escapable.

As I start the new year, and a new semester, I want to remind myself that I practice awareness not to control my experiences, but to accept them—to see and acknowledge not only the times when I am happy, but the times when I am afraid, and lonely—not to sublimate my fears, but to live with them more fully. I want to remind myself that equanimity does not mean simplicity or consistency. Real equanimity exists only when there is a diversity of experiences. Real equanimity exists only when there is a diversity of people: of bodies, of beliefs, of language, of dreams. As unfamiliar, and inconsistent, and unknowable—and scary—as this world can sometimes be, this is where I know I want to be. 

With hope,

Brent 

Moving Forward, Stepping Back (Scattered Thoughts)

I. For the past couple of years I’ve been reading the I Ching by the traditional method of counting bundles of yarrow stalks. The I Ching is known as a form of fortune-telling, but it doesn’t offer an image of the future so much as guidance in the present. It provides a frame for looking at present circumstances, making meaning from them, and making decisions moving forward. As a text by itself, it is a beautiful and lucid commentary on the patterns of nature (human and otherwise). When I think of the I Ching I think of the ideas which are the most counter-intuitive to Western philosophy. The I Ching always advises understanding and acknowledging present circumstances, rather than fighting against them; sometimes the most beneficial step forward is to take a step back, or not to move at all.

I counted yarrow stalks on Wednesday morning, and my reading was the image of Obstruction (☵ water, the abysmal, over ☶ mountain, keeping still.) The meaning of this hexagram is exactly what I’ve just described: the way forward is blocked. The only way to progress is to step backward, and to understand how we got here in the first place. What it is that we really want? How do we choose a better path forward next time? (I think we all need to think about these questions moving forward, but that’s not what I want to write about today.)

I’ve gotten this reading more than once recently. You could argue that it’s message is vague, generic, or even cliché (which is essentially what I just did), but that doesn’t disqualify it from also being correct. This is what makes the I Ching a valuable resource: it’s rooted in the idea that history can and will repeat itself over and over. Our present circumstances are unique, but by no means are they new. The same warnings hold true again and again, and however grave the circumstances, I think that these words are always appropriate:

Difficulties and obstructions throw a man back upon himself. While the inferior man seeks to put the blame on other persons, bewailing his fate, the superior man seeks the error within himself, and through this introspection the external obstacle becomes for him an occasion for inner enrichment and education.

II. I spent Wednesday morning alone, and silent. I read the I Ching. I biked through the park. I wrote a lot in my journal. And I spent some time at the Art Museum making more sketches of the Buddha sculpture that I’ve been studying so much this semester. (I’m beginning a series of etching plates, using a smaller, more intimate image of this Buddha.) This little act was particularly meaningful, and not just because of what the image means to me. Rather, simply because I needed to not be alone, I needed to be doing something to keep my hands and my mind busy and focused. I needed prayer, I guess, more than meditation.

Reading the I Ching and sketching the Buddha, these are ways for me to step back, not only away from the immediate present, but into a deeper human past. It’s there that I find the knowledge that allows me to move forward, without anger, without blame.

III. I’ve been touched by the genuine care that people have been showing each other these past couple days. In my classes and meetings, much of the time has been spent sharing our feelings and fears. But I’m also very aware of how privileged I am to be an artist at a university where I can afford to spend my day in private and community reflection. If I am frustrated by one thing, it is the feeling that we (as a country) cannot afford to stop, just for one day, to breathe. And I wonder how much different today would be if we had more time—and not just on election day—to look at ourselves and at each other.

IV. Along with my meditation practices, I also try to practice simple acts of kindness. For the past several years I’ve made a habit of smiling at everyone that I meet throughout the day. This isn’t something I’ve ever talked about, and I don’t think that it alone makes me a good person. I do it because it makes me happier and I hope that it makes others happier to.

On Wednesday morning, while biking through the park smiling at strangers, it struck me how trivial this little act is, but a the same time, how terribly important. I’ve always known that my individual actions will never make a significant difference on a national scale. But I’ve never felt more strongly that what is needed most is kindness at the most fundamental level. Yes, at some point, we need a deeper kindness, a more practical understanding, but isn’t a smile a good place to start?

V. Of course I’m always trying to be the superior man, but I need to write these words to remind myself what that really means.

VI. Looking back, one more time: In the Indian epic, the Ramayana (I’m reading a novelization by Ramesh Menon), the hero Rama must find a way to cross the ocean to reach his wife Sita, who has been abducted by the demon king Ravana. Rama sits in meditation for three days, but when Varuna, the lord of the ocean, doesn’t answer his prayers, Rama fires his divine arrows into the sea with such ferocity that the earth shakes and the oceans threaten to burn away.

I like this image in contrast with the image of the Zen monk in meditation, purely in detachment and equanimity: Right now I need a kindness so fierce that the earth shakes. I need a kindness so deep that no one will look away.

Mid-Semester Updates

This past Monday I had a review with my advisors about my work so far, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about what I’ve been up to. 

I’ve been working mostly on a series of paintings using this image of a Buddha head sculpture from the St. Louis Art Museum. It started off just as a way of experimenting with different ways of painting, but I realized that through this repetition, the image began to function as a visual mantra. For the past couple years I’ve been trying to integrate my painting practice with my spiritual practice, and so far this has been a successful exercise in doing that. By repeating this same image, it allows me to experiment with differences—with color and affect—in a way that I haven’t done before, opening up really endless possibilities. I’m hoping to have most of this wall covered by the end of the semester, and am thinking about ways that I want the work to be displayed. 

When Lowell visited recently, he asked me if I was happy with the program. I’m really happy that I’m here and I’m happy with my work. But as I become more comfortable with the program, I’m having to come to terms more completely with my own anxieties, fears, and criticisms. Writing these posts has been a really helpful way to creatively work through all these things, but sometimes it's nice to just paint pictures too. 

 

Thoughts While Hiking

When Lowell and I met I was still fantasizing about what it would be like to go live in a Zen monastery. I had been out of school for a couple years. I was working at the bookstore and I spent most of my time by myself—painting, reading, writing—and getting more involved in Zen. Being alone for those years allowed me to reflect in a way that I had never been able to before, and the knowledge and experiences that I gained then changed the way that I think about my life and work entirely. But I also imagined that a life of isolation might be easier than managing more of the hurts that I thought were inherent in a relationship.

When Lowell and I started talking about what a relationship would look like between us, I was afraid of losing both my time alone, and the sense of peaceful autonomy that came with it. I knew that if we were to be together, and we were to be happy, the relationship would somehow have to be as important to my work as my independence had been. But I didn’t know what that meant or what it would look like.

This past weekend was our fall break and Lowell came out to visit during my days off. I was looking forward to his visit, but also nervous that I would not be able to be fully present for it. I have been feeling more comfortable in the program here, but I’ve still been working through a level of stress greater than I have since we’ve known each other. Since I’ve been in St. Louis I haven’t had much time to think about our relationship at all. And while it is comforting to be in a position where I do not have to worry about our relationship, the truth is that I feel better when I have the relationship to think about.

Writing these posts has been a really liberating way to talk about the things that are fundamental to my art practice, which I don’t normally get to talk about in art classes. I talk often about meditation, yoga, and other creative practices, but I don’t often talk about my personal relationships. This is, of course, because they are so personal, but also because  we don’t tend to think of them as a practice. If there is one thing I have learned with Lowell, it is that a partnership is work, and it is truly a creative collaboration: something made between two people.

Painting is important to me because the process itself is so liberating. Every day that I’m in the studio I get to experiment and have fun with material and color, and to be surprised by the experiences that come out of it. I chose to pursue painting because I thought I could spend my life exploring the possibilities of the medium. But it also takes work. Every day I have to look at what I’ve done and question whether it reflects the knowledge and understanding that I want to bring into the world. Being with Lowell is also liberating. I feel happier, calmer, more free, when we are together. And I am excited for the possibilities of what we can do together that I cannot do on my own. But we also continually ask ourselves what it is that we’re doing. What is this thing we’re making together? What do we want it to be?

On Monday Lowell and I drove out to Hawn State Park, about an hour from the city.  We walked through the Missouri oaks and limestone, and talked about what it’s been like living away from each other. And for the first time in weeks I was able to recognize my feelings and frustrations. What I mean to say is: being with Lowell allows me to see myself—and my work—better, because this relationship allows me to be something more than I can be when I’m alone. Thinking about the relationship isn’t just a reminder of my commitments, but a reminder of what is really important to me.

When I’m working, I constantly ask myself if what I am making is meaningful, but over the course of my life, I have no guarantee of its meaning. It’s not that being with Lowell is more important than my artwork, but as long as I am with Lowell I know that I am doing something—making something—that is worthwhile.

 

Thoughts on Music

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been coming to the teaching lounge at the Wash U medical school campus, which is just down the street from my apartment. There’s a piano there for public use, and most of the time I can show up in the evening and play a few songs without interrupting anyone’s studying. 

I didn’t realize how important music was to my creative practice until I showed up in St. Louis and was without a piano for the first time in several years. It’s hard to believe that I didn’t make this connection sooner: I studied music during my first year of college. I wanted to be a performer (Euphonium), or a composer. And even though I didn’t have the skill or the dedication to pursue music alone, I decided to focus on painting knowing that there would always be a place for music in my life. 

When I am sitting at the piano and enjoying playing, it’s the same as when I am enjoying painting: it’s a condition of complete involvement, surrender, and wordlessness. But I’m beginning to realize how fully my approach to painting is informed by my training as a musician, and how much I strive for the qualities of music in my work. A piece of music is beautiful even without the words to say it, and I hope that someone might love my paintings even if they don’t have anything to say about them. Every day that I am in the studio I imagine myself playing for one person in the audience. Every day I am practicing my skills so that I can better reach that person. 

I’m not actually very good at the piano. For the past couple of years I’ve been working my way through the Philip Glass Solo Piano book, which, despite being some of my favorite music is also not too hard to play. Philip Glass isn’t known for technical difficulty, but for his relatively simple patterns of chords and arpeggios, which repeat—and repeat—until they become mesmerizing, haunting even.  I have always loved listening to, and playing, his music, because it requires so much concentration to keep track of these repetitions, but if you can pay attention, each repetition unfolds greater nuance, endless possibilities for interpretation.

In the few months before coming to Wash U, I had been working on transcribing the Fifth String Quartet by Philip Glass for piano. It was a purely recreational task—probably more work than it’s been worth—but I was arguably more excited about it than about my painting or writing. Even though it’s one of my favorite pieces of music, it’s not at all popular. So I was excited a few weeks ago when I saw that the Arianna String Quartet, in St. Louis, was playing a concert of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and yes, the Philip Glass Fifth String Quartet! It was so meaningful for me to see this performance, first because of the coincidence, but also because it seemed to affirm what I valued about music: I was that one person in the audience…

I’m currently working on an series of paintings, an open-ended exploration around a drawing that I made of an ancient Buddha head in the collection at the St. Louis Art Museum. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started and I’m not sure now where the paintings will go. But I have already learned a lot about Art and about myself since beginning. Sitting here now, writing, I see how clearly these paintings reflect not only the music I’ve been playing but the ritual Zen practice that is also so important to my work: the daily repetition of the same gestures, the same images, the same sounds. But within that repetition, the freedom to let go, to be, and to become. I know that I will be writing more about these connections in the coming weeks.

Thoughts, Week 5;

In the few months before coming to graduate school, I spent much of my time preparing mentally for what I knew would be a stressful couple of years. I tried to be more diligent about my meditation practice, and to get some more experience with my Yoga practice. I really hoped that if I could hold onto these routines I would be able to manage the many things that would need my time. (I think of how much better prepared I am than when I went off to school the first time.) If I could do this, I would still have time to cook meals for myself, to write in my journal, and all the other things I do that are so important to my creative practice, even if they are not time spent in the studio. I hoped that if I could manage this successfully, it would be a powerful statement: that Art isn’t just what happens in front of an easel, that it comes from every moment of living.

So far I have not done a very good job of this, though I am trying hard not to blame myself. I didn’t actually imagine how busy I would be, how many lectures I would have to go to and still make work. And then: still take care of myself. I knew that it would be difficult for me to transition back into academics, and I knew that I would have creative differences with many of my peers and teachers. But I didn’t realize how difficult this would be to deal with without a consistent reflective practice. 

Much of the frustration I’ve experienced so far is simply because I haven’t known what to expect yet. And almost every day I am better understanding what I need to be doing. I realize that much of the pressure I’ve felt has come from myself: the need to show others that I know what I’m doing and I’m good at it. I’ve written a little bit about these difficulties already (in a post couple days ago), and I know that I will be continuing to organize my thoughts on these subjects. 

This past weekend I made it to the nearest Zen center to my apartment, for sitting sessions on Saturday and Sunday. My focus is not what it was a few months ago, but it is simply refreshing to be in that space and get a break from all other concerns. I feel very lucky to have found this center; it’s small, but very active. The meditation center is run through an organization called Inside Dharma, which works with inmates at many of the local prisons. They publish a newsletter several times a year with letters written by inmates about the Buddhist teachings in their lives. (www.insidedharma.net/newsletter.html) I have honestly learned from every one. Each writer surprises me with true reminders of compassion, dedication, and mostly, humility. Also: Inside Dharma runs a bakery that employs only ex-offenders. And the sweets are pretty good! The point is: being back at the Zen center has reminded me of what is important, to my values, to my health, and of course, to my Art. I hope that I can learn to bring my spiritual and creative practices

All that said, I am really happy with how my work is going so far. Conversations with my classmates and professors have been valuable (also more than I could have imagined) in understanding my work. 

It’s perhaps not surprising that Buddhist imagery is featuring prominently in my work so far. The Lotus images are collagraph prints for my printmaking class. The Buddha heads are what I’ve been working on in my studio. I’ve also had a couple people stop by so that I could sketch portraits of them. It’s been fun working with strangers, though I’m definitely still learning how to deal with models. I’m planning on doing paintings from these sketches, so I don’t have much to show yet. There is a lot of Art still in the works, so I won’t say anything about them now. I hope you enjoy!

Thoughts, Week 4;

In Art and Illusion (1960), E. H. Gombrich proposes a theory of re-presentation that begins with creative action: the artist, in seeking to imitate the world, begins by making a mark. By evaluating and adjusting these marks, the artist learns more complex techniques and methods for creating an image that is closer to the truth.

As a painter, trained in re-presentation, my work originates in this impulse towards imitation—the excitement of seeing the world re-made by my own hand—but also the experience of painting itself: of oil and pigment and brush against canvas. In the past couple of years since reading Art and Illusion, I’ve taken Gombrich’s theory as a defense for my own creative process. This defense was necessary to me, since the culture surrounding art (especially since 1960) has seemed increasingly conceptual, and threatening to my own way of working. I saw this movement dangerously one-sided, more concerned with ideas (content) than with the bodies (forms) needed to express those ideas. 

The paintings that I have made in the past couple of years have been deliberate exercises in expressing the intuitive and physical aspects of the creative process; as if, by simply copying the world around me, I could show that this was all that was needed in order to make good art. These paintings were successful exercises, but also, ultimately,  one-sided.

When I began working in the MFA program at Wash U, I knew that my ideas would cause frustration in trying to communicate with peers and professors whose beliefs are different than my own. What I did not imagine was that it was my attitude of defensiveness, rather than my attitudes about art, which would cause the most difficulty. I have realized over recent conversations that, in this defensiveness, I’ve been missing the opportunity to learn from others making work differently from myself, and to imagine a creative process that is more integrated and more inclusive. 

The following diagram is my first attempt at envisioning what this could be. 

By Action, I'm referring to the act of making, the act of working with the body and with materials. For the painter, it is putting paint to canvas; for the writer, pen to paper (or fingers to a keyboard); for the musician as well, laying fingers on the keys. (It's both the movement of the hands, as well as the music itself.) Even though I've put Action at the top, I don't mean to imply that art must begin with making; the creative process is a cycle, which repeats continually while the artist is working. 

If Action refers to the physical aspects of creativity, Knowledge refers to the entirely non-physical, and non-active. I'm not talking about the process of thinking, but about knowledge itself. I mean: the whole soup of memories, culture, history, etc. which together make up my fundamental understanding of the world. 

Through Imagination, I project my Knowledge into my work. Through Reflection, I allow my work and the working process to inform my fundamental understanding. Both are necessary in order to successfully create, and understand what I've created. 

Even though my own creative practice begins with painting, it is also so important that my actions (as a painter, and otherwise) reflect this understanding of the creative process as a whole. Thinking about these aspects of the creative process is helpful for bringing balance and integrity to my own work. But I hope that it will also help me to understand others' work; the extent to which each artist's work uniquely embodies these aspects. 

 

Greetings from St. Louis

I've been in St. Louis for almost two weeks now, and tonight is my last night before the semester officially begins. I was really excited to get to the city early, so I could have some time to get to know the area before classes started, but I've spent most of my time just waiting to get into my studio and start painting.

I've spent much of my time here in Forest Park, which I'm told is the largest city park in America. The park itself was created for the 1904 World's Fair (as well as a lot of St. Louis's landmarks). It really is wonderful park, with creeks, lots of trees, wide open spaces. But it also houses the Art Museum, History Museum and the Zoo. The Art Museum is great, and the Zoo is really world-class. (I really enjoyed the hippos, several really energetic elephants, and the bush dog. It's so cute!)

My apartment is next to Forest Park, on the far side from the Wash U campus. Once classes start, I think I might want to be closer, but right now I'm really happy with the area. I live within walking distance from a popular strip of grocery stores, restaurants, bars, and a bookstore. In the other direction, there's an LGBT friendly neighborhood with mostly bars, but also a really cool coffee place. It's fun to finally have the city-living experience, but in a city that is pretty laid-back, and not very crowded. 

The weather takes some getting used to. It wasn't too bad when I got here, but I've been completely sweaty for the past three days. I'm writing now from Whole Foods, where the AC works better than in my apartment. The cicadas, fortunately, are starting to quiet down. 

I had a couple days of orientation this week. I've moved into my studio, met my classmates and professors, and even a handful of graduate students in other departments. It's a little strange to me to be at such a small university (It's about 14,000 students total, almost half of them post-graduates), but it means that it's really easy to get to know students all across campus. I've met a few MFA candidates in creative writing and am hoping to work with them during the program.

I'm taking a couple practical art classes this semester, but most of my time will be in individual practice and critiques with students and professors. Tomorrow I'm planning on going to the Art Museum to do some sketches of old Buddha heads. I'm very excited to get to work, but I'll have a lot more to say once the program really gets started!

The Buddha’s Eight Simple Steps

 

I got turned on to mindfulness for the first time when I was in my last quarter at UC Santa Barbara. I went to a school mental health counselor to talk about the panic attacks that I had been having throughout that school year. I had never experienced anxiety so severely before, and basic mindfulness techniques helped me to recognize these attacks, to understand their causes and to avoid them. In the few years since I’ve been out of school, I’ve continued to use these basic techniques and to develop a more complete meditation practice, drawing on Western and Eastern religions, contemporary philosophy and science, but mostly Buddhist and Zen Buddhist philosophy.
The Noble Eightfold Path is the cornerstone of Buddhist Philosophy, a summary of the eight steps most essential to the Buddha’s teaching. I had heard of the Eightfold Path previous to studying Buddhism, but even after a few years of recreational study, I still didn’t know what it actually was. Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion — it isn’t tied to tradition or scripture the way most other religions are — so it’s teachings have been easily adapted for a contemporary Western audience. Many self-help and psychology books re-purpose Buddhist philosophy for secular readers, but many books on Buddhism written by Buddhists still don’t explain or mention the Eightfold Path.

Even though the Buddha lived 2,500 years ago, the origins of his teaching are pretty clear: Siddhartha Gautama was a prince who, for whatever reason, was unhappy. But there really wasn’t much he could do about it. There were no self-help books to read or TED Talks to watch. His only resources were the various monks, yogis, and ascetics, who each taught their own method of liberation. The only choice he felt he had was to leave his life behind. For many years, he studied with each, but all of them taught their own extreme discipline — ritual worship, or fasting, or meditation. Gautama thought that the answer should be simpler, something that everyone could do.
After going off on his own, he was able, for the first time, to see the universe truthfully and to accept the path that his circumstances had brought him to. This awakening isn’t the “enlightenment” that I had always imagined. Here, awakening means, simply, seeing clearly. I like to think of the Buddha as a spiritual scientist, because of his dedication to a complete and un-biased understanding, and because of his integrity in working towards that understanding. He didn’t have any lab equipment or research funding — in fact, these are the sort of things that would have got in the way of his independent determination. He simply did not trust in anything other than what he could experience in his own mind and body.
The Eightfold Path is the successful result of the Buddha’s dedication. He spent his life teaching this method, which has worked for thousands during his lifetime and for millions since.

For those already familiar with Buddhist teaching, there isn’t actually anything different in the Eightfold Path itself. The Eightfold Path is simply a way of organizing the Buddha’s teachings. But these teachings, together, form an actionable program for spiritual growth, self-improvement, attaining happiness, or becoming-one-with-the-universe. I couldn’t possibly explain everything there is to know about the Eightfold Path — there is certainly more that I have to learn — and many others have spent lifetimes studying and sharing these teachings. But the basic principles of the Eightfold Path are really very straightforward.
In fact, the more I study the Eightfold path, the more contemporary it seems. These steps are structured exactly like contemporary self-help, business, and recovery (Twelve-Step) programs. Yet the way these steps are written often makes them seem esoteric and unattainable. I started writing my own version of these eight steps in order for me to understand them better, but I hope that I can make them more accessible for others as well.

The Eight Steps

Wisdom:

The Eight Steps are divided into three sections. The first section is called Wisdom. I sometimes think of Wisdom as being the end goal or result of a spiritual practice, rather than its beginning. Many people become interested in Buddhist philosophy or meditation because they are, for whatever reason, unhappy with their life. Even though it may not seem very profound, just realizing that I’m unhappy and wanting to make a change is a kind of wisdom in itself. These first two steps are all about that.

Step One: Acknowledge the Problem
Just like in the Twelve-Step Program, the Buddha’s first step is to admit that there is a problem. The Buddha explains the problem of unhappiness — and its solution — in four rules, also known as The Four Noble Truths.

Rule #1: Life Sucks. The Buddhist concept of suffering refers to this general sense of un-happiness, dis-satisfaction, or dis-ease with the way things are. This suffering is different than physical suffering — being cold, hungry, or sick — but not separate from it. Life can suck for the rich and healthy as well as for the poor. I don’t think the Buddha was trying to say that life is always terrible and nothing good happens ever. He just wanted to point out that there is a greater meaning of suffering, this sense of dissatisfaction, which is universal and afflicts all people, regardless of their circumstances.
I feel very lucky to have lived without physical suffering, and with a family and community that has always supported me. So when my panic attacks happened, I didn’t understand what I had to be anxious about. I like to think about it like this: Even though my life seems comfortable enough, there are a lot of times when I’m sitting in traffic, or waiting in line at the Post Office when I think this really sucks. And in those moments, I start thinking about what it would be like to not have to deal with those things. Sometimes it’s something little like having to clean my dog’s vomit, but sometimes it’s worrying about having enough money for rent, or dealing with the death of someone close. All these frustrations, great or small, are an inherent part of life. We are always fighting against them, and this sense of discontent underlies all of our experiences.

Rule #2: Life Sucks because of Me. We can spend our entire lives frustrated by our circumstances — there’s always going to be something else in the way. The Buddha says that the problem isn’t the circumstances themselves, but our attitudes towards them. As long as I find myself wishing for something different, better, faster, or easier, I’m going to be frustrated because I’m imagining something that doesn’t exist and isn’t going to. No matter what my circumstances are, it’s human nature to want something more. I say life sucks because of me, not because suffering is my fault or anybody’s fault, but because this frustration arises from human nature — it’s hardwired into our consciousness. This is probably the biggest concept in Buddhist philosophy: that the sense-of-self that forms our needs and desires also causes our frustration.

Rule #3: Life doesn’t have to suck. This is the good news: human nature is a complicated thing, and it’s just as capable of embracing difficulty as it is rejecting it. The Buddha worked and succeeded in finding a way to accept his circumstances and to overcome his frustration. He didn’t spend his life teaching that life sucks and there isn’t anything you can do about it.

Rule #4: Don’t let your life suck! Making a change like this isn’t easy, but you have to believe that these steps work. The Eight Steps are a really deliberate set of actions for behavior and meditation which are specifically designed to help break away from these dissatisfied attitudes. These steps can help us to become aware of our own and others’ suffering; to become aware of the possibilities that exist beyond frustration; to learn compassion and expand our sense-of-self; to fully inhabit a greater worldview; to see the universe clearly; and to accept our circumstances.

Step Two: Let it Go
The second step is also just like in the Twelve-Step program: it means making the decision to trust in these rules and to follow these steps wherever they lead. But it’s a little more than that too. This step also means deciding to let go of all the things about yourself — the origin of unhappiness — which get in the way of achieving something better.

Morality:

The second section is called Morality. I like to think of this as the Buddha’s version of the Ten Commandments; this is the part where he says what you should and shouldn’t do. Unlike the Ten Commandments, though, the Buddha’s rules aren’t quite as explicit — the Buddha was not an authoritative patriarch like the God of the Old Testament — but most of the rules are pretty much the same.

Steps Three and Four: Love Your Neighbor
The Buddha divides these steps into rules for speech and rules for action, but I think that they can both be summed up with the same few words: Don’t be a jerk.* I could also sum them up with this or any other version of the Golden Rule: If you don’t want somebody to do it to you, don’t do it to anybody else. Unfortunately, it’s easy to learn this in kindergarten and then think that it isn’t practical enough for adult problems — that it only applies to name-calling and hair-pulling. But that’s just not true.
Cultural knowledge sometimes tells us that we have to be selfish in order to succeed. But respect and compassion only become more important as we grow older and more responsible for our actions. Practicing kindness towards others helps me to step outside of my own needs and desires.

Step Five: Love Yourself
If Steps Three and Four are about treating other people with kindness, then step Five is about treating yourself with kindness. But it’s sometimes easier to know how to take care of other people than it is to take care of yourself. Sometimes when we’re feeling frustrated or upset and we think we need a strong drink or an afternoon binge-watching Netflix, what we really need is some quiet space, someone to talk to, or just a good meal and some decent sleep. This step is about learning to make healthy decisions for the body, mind and spirit. It’s also about making the decision to remove the things we do which are satisfying in the moment, but don’t help in achieving our goals.
This step has been the subject of debate since the Buddha first started teaching. For instance, the Buddha says no drinking at all, but I’m not the only one who thinks that that might be overdoing it. While drinking — and many other behaviors — can obviously become unhealthy, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a beer with your friends on a Sunday afternoon. Everybody is different, with different needs and different desires. I think that the Buddha intentionally left this step vague in order to encourage everyone to make their own decisions.

Concentration:

The third section is called Concentration because this is the part where it takes dedication and focus to bring good intentions to life.

Step Six: Do Something
This step is like a four-point checklist to make sure that you’re following all the previous steps. These points are so simple they should be obvious, but if you’re frustrated or upset for any reason, chances are that you could probably be following them better.
1. Don’t do anything that’s going to make you feel bad.
2. If you already feel bad, don’t do anything that’s going to make you feel worse.
3. Instead, do something that will make you feel good.
4. And when you feel good, try to stay there.
Obviously, this step is more difficult in practice than on the page, but I find that just thinking about my frustrations in this way helps me to make healthier decisions for myself. The trickiest part is knowing how to stay in a good place once you’ve found it. This requires learning to listen and pay attention to your body and mind, which is the next step.

Step Seven: Pay Attention
There is so much more to say about mindfulness practice than I can possibly hope to explain here. But a basic mindfulness practice is how I got started on this path, and the basic idea of mindfulness is so simple: pay attention.
Mindfulness practice always begins with the awareness of the breath — the lungs as they fill and empty, the chest and belly as they rise and fall. The breath is the fundamental rhythm of the body, but it is easy to forget about it because there are so many other things to think about. If we can pay attention to the experience and nuance of each individual breath, we can begin to pay attention to the other sensations of the body — on our skin, our muscles and bones, our hearts and stomachs — and outside of our bodies — the sensations of sound, sight, and touch This awareness can expand outward from sensations to feelings, emotions and thoughts as we experience our bodies and environment.
Mindful attention is the tool that allows us to understand what makes us feel good, what makes us feel bad, what experiences are meaningful, and what leaves us feeling empty. Mindfulness has become popular in recent years because this awareness of our own negative thoughts and feelings makes it easier to understand them, detach from them, and let them go. But mindfulness is so much more than this strategic mind-hacking. The experience of expanding awareness unfolds a world of sensations and experiences that are always around us but are easy to ignore. This is the reward we receive for learning to let go of our desires and frustrations. Buddhist practice isn’t about finding some meaningful reality either “out there,” or “within yourself,” but about recognizing the entire world that we have always been a part of.
One of my favorite thoughts about mindfulness is from “Mindfulness on the Go,” by Jan Chozen Bays. She writes that mindfulness “is a way of expressing our gratitude for a gift that we can never repay.” Again, there is so much more I’d love to say, but the thing about mindfulness is that it’s so easy to sit down and try it for yourself.

Step Eight: Sit Down and Shut Up**
In the last step, the Buddha describes what it’s like to become completely absorbed in meditation. It takes a lot of time to reach that kind of concentration. I’m not that experienced, and not a lot of people are, but meditation can still be really helpful and enjoyable even if you only do it a little bit at a time.
Mindfulness practice isn’t meditation exactly, but it’s not different than meditation either — if you can be mindful, you can meditate. There are many different ways to meditate, but most of them require sitting down and shutting up. The idea is that if you’re not moving and not talking, getting rid of all the little sensations and stimulations that distract the mind, you’ll be able to focus more purely on the mind itself.
I think that meditation is the last step here because it’s the most difficult, but also — arguably — the most important. For many people it may not seem necessary, but if you have the time and space to do it, I hope you’ll give it a try.

A Few Final Notes:
Now that I’ve gone through all the steps in the order that they’re normally written, I think it’s important to say that they don’t need to go in order. I didn’t even know the Four Noble Truths until after I had started a meditation practice. But mindfulness has continued to help me understand the nature of suffering, and learning how to take care of myself has helped me to be more understanding of others. All the steps connect to each other in this way.
I hope I’ve managed to show how simple these steps are, but I’ve also included a chart below with the most important stuff. I’ve tried giving each step a silly name so that they’re easier for me to remember, but some of them really suck. Please feel free to throw my words away and find the ones that mean the most to you. Thank you, and have fun!

 

* I stole this from Brad Warner’s book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master, 2016
** Also from Brad Warner. Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, 2007