Meditation, the ‘Other’ and Art

Hallo Beloveds. This is an essay I sent my email subscribers (whose ranks you can join via this link) back at the beginning of March! It took me donkeys to write so I thought I’d share it a bit wider after-the-fact!

How’s your spring springing? It’s still snowing on my in-laws in New York, and obscenely also snowing all over merry olde England…a long winter! Lucky for me in Houston all the birds are back and I can drink my beer outdoors again. I’m a simple woman.

The return of the sun and the birds made me feel a bit less frozen, so I turned to my already forgotten New Years’ resolutions. Where I’ve failed at regular cardio (again), I’ve re-dedicated myself to my daily meditation. Aside from meditation helping me avoid becoming a hairy whirlpool of anxiety/creativity on the regular, it’s starting to affect how I make my pictures.

Here’s a drawing from last week, it’s called ‘Pitchshifter’, and is one of the most spontaneous pieces I’ve made in years. (Pencil on paper, 25″ x 18″):

Pitchshifter

Normally I plan an artwork to make sure nothing ‘goes wrong,’ but this evolved as I drew, adding detail and marks, then at some point we sort of came to the end of our journey and I just stopped. It was lovely to rediscover not knowing what ‘wrong’ means, at least in the context of a single artwork.

Here’s a shot of all the planning I did for the drawing…

Pitchshifter sketch

That’s it, a doodle in a sketchbook, about two inches high. The picture turned up out of nowhere, pretty fully formed. What’s interesting (to me at least, I’m pretty self-obsessed), is that I’ve found this kind of thing happening much more since starting to meditate regularly.

When I started making art full-time, as a teen, I made all my pictures intuitively like this. Since becoming a ‘professional’ I’ve learnt to plan and avoid things that could go too far off course. This is pretty important when making art on commission because clients like to know what they’re going to get and I need to be able to deliver it.

One of my lessons recently has been finding a better balance between my planned commission work and my personal, more intuitive work. Fiercer and more relevant art (and a deeper insight into myself), are the fruits of me releasing control of ‘Art’ and instead getting out of the way a bit. Damming up that river, or only letting it out in a form I’ve decided is acceptable, results in stale, repetitive art and a sad, lost artist.

In one of my favourite books, ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, he talks about ‘plot’ and planning his stories. Mr. King describes writing as ‘finding a fossil’ of a story somewhere outside himself:

      “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can – I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course)…When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me. I replied that that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it. And I do. Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or Game Boys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”

A few weeks ago I re-wrote a picture book text that I’d shelved about six months ago. I did this re-write ala Mr. King – largely ‘stream of consciousness.’ It turned out better (and with less effort) than the previous iteration, which I’d plotted and planned for an an entire year. Sometimes we’re not ready, sometimes we need to get out of the way, but this one, perhaps, was a bit of both.

I’m not sure what I’m getting in the way of exactly, maybe myself. Maybe I’m in the way of ‘The Art’.

That sounds kinda animistic, like I have a weird personification of Art that runs about my studio, probably in a toga, a Personal Pocket Muse. I don’t, not at all, but I also don’t know what I do have. As much as I’d like to offer you, dear reader, the fruits of my obvious enlightenment, I honestly haven’t the foggiest what’s going on here. I’m forced, instead, to awkwardly settle with the shortcut of ‘Othering’, setting ‘The Art’ outside myself, because all I know about ‘it’ is that ‘it’ is not really under my control. The best I can do is figure out how to connect with ‘it’ better, thus my joy at meditation seeming to strengthen the connection.

Some humans could claim this as ‘channelling,’ but I don’t know. Perhaps? It would be just as easy to say this is ‘right brain’ and ‘left brain,’ but I’m sure the idea of this as something definitive is a widely held over-simplification, and I really can’t abide by over-simplification. So I have no way of explaining it without deferring to ideas which I neither understand nor have even researched very well, so I’ll stick with not trying to explain it at all, for a bit at least.

Besides, I do like a good mystery.

What I do know is that letting ‘The Art’ speak keeps my work fresh, relevant and, crucially, stops me getting bored of what I do. I get to look up from my navel briefly, which is novel, and it saves me, theoretically, from relying on the same ideas, rehashed over and over again.

But I don’t relinquish all control and disappear when the paints come out. I’m not a faceless conduit, I couldn’t be just any old human. It’s a dance, really, and not always a pretty one, played out in real-time and completely unpredictable. ‘The Art’ gives me a little to work with, and then I come back to ‘Art’ with my humanity, my intellect, my experiences and skills, to steer it a bit. We have a conversation, and after some back-and-forth hopefully we create something together that neither of us could do alone.

Dr. Jeff Kripal, the J.Newton Rayzor chair of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University here in Houston, has an idea that relates – that of ‘the Human as Two’ separate but joined entities, one mundane, one ‘super human,’ sort of like the Gnostic idea of the ‘divine spark’ held within each of us, who come together as one to create another, separate, third.

This resonates with me only because I feel something similar when I make art: the first of ‘Cathy-as-Two’ is a day-to-day, mundane consciousness; logical, testing colour combinations, planning and making decisions, and the other (‘Art’? ‘Divinity’? ‘Higher Self’?), sort of has it’s own agenda, does what it wants, and offers things that I don’t understand from places I haven’t heard of.

It’s terrible fun. Every time I do manage to tap into ‘it’ (and some days this is easier than others), I get surprises that I wouldn’t get if I was relying on only my ‘mundane self.’

And yes, sometimes I’m stuck with mundane me, but I’ve found dedication to meditation has given me more consistent, strong, interesting images from this ‘Other’. Like intuition, I think – the more you pay attention to ‘it’, let ‘it’ know you’re listening, the more ‘it’ turns up. As I get better at accessing that weird floaty deep space during meditation, the easier it is for me to access a similar place with a pencil in my hand.

So that’s my March advice; relinquish some control. (When it’s safe, let’s not just let mad aunt Fanny make all the decisions or something, remember last Christmas?) See if letting go a bit’ll give you some new insight. Listen to those voices in your head. That’s the best advice you’ll get all day. I listen to the voices in my head all the time, and just look where it’s gotten me – fame, fortune, stock-piles of cursed ancient artifacts…

Anyway.

This is a useful space to access, whether you make art and would like to speak to your Muse (or whatever you want to call it), or if you’re not making art but would quite like to dig around a bit. Like diary-writing, I often to turn to ‘soft-focus’ brain with a pencil in my hand as an exercise in itself. If you’re given a symbol or idea and you note it down, later you can write about it, read about it, if you dance you can dance with it, make ceremony of it, meditate on it…whatever is important to you. Being able to connect with symbols from somewhere numinous can give you material for all sorts of interesting, growthful and, I suppose, mysterious discoveries, regardless of artistic intentions down the road.

So, if you want to give it a go here are my tips:

Sit still. Get your sketchbook, journal, grimoire, stone tablet, whatever, and your pencil, pen or chisel. If you meditate doing so beforehand ought to help the dissociative state that will allow images, thoughts, etc to come up more easily. This’ll work anywhere you can concentrate. You might need solitude, silence, nature, rhinestones, whatever gets you inwardly focused. Then record everything that pops up – images, phrases, feelings, whatever. Try to draw them, even just a little doodle. I use both words and pictures, you might prefer one or the other, but do give the drawing a go, it’ll hold the image more vividly and make it easier to call back later. The trick here is quantity – don’t worry about things that look weird, or conceited, or unoriginal, or weird (things get real weird), just record it. For about every ten things that you collect only one will feel ‘important’ or useful, so quantity is key.
If you’re struggling try closing your eyes for a bit. It might be hard to get the barrier down so stuff can come through, but that’s fine, it’ll come with practise. The more you get out of the way, the easier it’ll come, just like meditation.

So, I am hoping to hear your thoughts on how this works out for you, and what you think of this idea of an ‘Other’ feeding people tidbits of information, symbols, and the like. The concept of some separate thing inspiring us isn’t new, I know, but do you have any personal experience of it? I figure my explanation options include: channeling Deity or a deity (and extra points for obscure ones), the unconscious mind, a better written version of the New Age ‘Higher Self’, or, finally, I’m mad. They’re all pretty tough to disprove, but I’m leaning towards the last one.

Drop me an email with your thoughts, experiences, please, I’m taking any and all options into consideration at this point.

Anyway, in ‘news’, I’m doing ‘March Meet the Maker’ on my Instagram, which is been very galvanising and a surprising amount of fun. If you’re doing it too, drop me a line on IG so we can connect. Instagram is fast turning into my favourite social media, it’s easy to show support for my friends and fellow creators on there and feels much more natural than Facebook, which I have all but abandoned professionally. No great loss. I’m also making Pokemon and Sonic the Hedgehog fanart for an upcoming show at Texas Art Asylum, and finally, finally got the first of my short comic scripts written, thanks to an amazing class at the Sequential Artist’s Workshop in Florida, with Tom Hart, whose book ‘Rosalie Lightning’, about the sudden death of his young daughter, broke my heart with it’s beauty. Very little stirs me as much as people who can make soft, sad art about grief.

My partner is machining a petrol-fueled engine, I have no idea how, my sister is painting and sculpting in clay like some wild spring fay, and my dear friend is doing mad crafts with swirly paint and bottle caps for her new apartment. Spring has sprung somewhere, at least! I cannot tell you how spontaneous, personal explosions of creativity like this inspire me. Humans, and acts like this, teach me so much, and give me so much to be humble about!

Anyway, much love, cupcakes, be gentle with yourselves!

       -Cathy.

P.S – Do email me your thoughts on this, especially if you meditate, make art, or have good authority on who or what is making all of my comics about birds at the moment, I should like to know what’s going on. I don’t even like birds that much…

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