Freeing the grip of the mind

When I thought of the title for this post, I had to laugh, because I pictured one part of myself gripping the steering wheel with all my might while another part of me patiently pries my fingers away. The one in the driver’s seat is holding on for dear life. She can’t imagine what disasters will ensue if she turns the control over to this other character, that thing called intuition. The irony is that, while she may control the wheel, the intuition controls the ignition. That’s what makes the car go.

Continuing with the automotive metaphor, in the early days of painting I had an insight that painting for process is like sitting in a little seat on top of an elephant. You have a little toy steering wheel, which you can turn and turn to your heart’s content, but your steering will have no effect on where the elephant takes you. This wasn’t altogether a frightening image; in fact, it was reassuring—because along with the loss of control (on one level), I was learning that the elephant was completely trustworthy, that it had my best interests at heart and wouldn’t take me down the wrong path. The landscape I found myself in could seem strange and foreign at times, but it was utterly safe.

I always considered myself the most difficult case in my painting group. When Michelle tried to work with me, even making encouraging statements like “Didn’t that feel good to paint?” or asking what else could come into the painting, all my hackles went up. I heard everything as a criticism, and even the encouragement seemed like it must have an ulterior motive behind it. Growing up with a controlling mother had made me hypersensitive to anyone I thought was trying to take me over.

Resistance is a natural part of the process, whether you’ve just started painting or have been doing it for 30 years. We naturally resist when we feel as if something (or someone) is pushing us to go where we don’t want to go. Sometimes we call it “being stuck,” not knowing what to do, but even stuckness is a way of resisting the unknown, of trying to maintain control over what images come to us. The good news about resistance is that, unless you stop painting altogether, you can’t really hold the process back. You will not be stuck forever. The process does the work in spite of you.

There is a difference between “the thinker” and “the painter.” While I’m thinking up a storm in front of my painting, judging and worrying and trying to control the outcome, the painter keeps on painting. I don’t know who that painter is, but she’s different from who I think I am. Fortunately, the painter has a mind and purpose of her own.

The painting mirror is unrelenting. You see that nothing you do brings a feeling of control. Only letting up on the grip a little—taking a risk, painting a little faster, stepping into the unknown—brings any relief, brings the immediate feedback that there’s another level that you can trust. You don’t necessarily understand what made it happen, but the softening in your body, the sudden fascination with painting the monster or the baby or the huge red woman—that’s what tells you it’s OK. You can trust your desires. “Go toward what interests you” is still the best painting (and life) advice I’ve ever heard.

Painting kind of knocks you off your axis. It’s as if the center of gravity shifts from your head to somewhere deep in your body. As you learn to trust this other center, you discover a whole rich inner land of feelings and images. It reminds me of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, where there’s a whole world inside the one we see on the surface. What impressed me so much about that book was that there was a sky at the center of the earth. I could imagine caves and streams and even dinosaurs, but a sky? How could the inside contain an outside? And it’s like that in painting. Going down deep into the center of yourself, along with the recognizable images and strange creatures, there is a deep blue sky that holds infinite possibilities for exploration.

 

 

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