Last night I picked up Meditations on Intention and Being by Rolf Gates, which I began reading earlier this year. In the beginning of chapter 4, Gates notes two abilities that enable the student of yoga to cultivate mindfulness or the practice of allowing the mind to settle. Abhyasa is the ability to repeatedly align our attention with the present moment and vairagya is letting an experience arise and pass without reacting to it. Of course, these are beneficial concepts across the full spectrum of life, but I find them particularly useful in my studio practice.
When I began to work more intuitively five years ago, I found that I would hit this strange space of not knowing nearly every time I created a painting. It’s true that some paintings seem to flow out as if they were already fully formed ideas, but more often I have found that somewhere along the line there is this wide gap between myself and the finished or fully realized painting.
What I’ve come to understand after years of entering this zone of not knowing is that it is a ripe and exciting space, even as it is wracked with fear, doubt, and insecurity. Author Brene Brown describes this experience eloquently with her suggestion that leaning into discomfort can change the way we live. I’ve never managed to shake the voices that tell me I could be doing something more important with my time (gardening, cooking, spending time with friends, cleaning my house, exercising, etc.), but I have learned to dial these voices down slightly so they don’t knock me too far off course or narrow the window of my experience.
During my yoga teacher training at Kripalu, instructor Aruni Nan Futurosky used the metaphor of “riding the wave” as a way to describe the experience you have on the mat when you are practicing a difficult pose or holding a pose longer than usual. You can sense the discomfort approaching, like distant storm clouds on the horizon or a large ocean swell gathering. This is equally true whether I am practicing plank or moving from underpainting to surface. As I reach the end of knowing and begin to feel my way deeper into a painting, discomfort mounts. Navigating this experience involves a combination of allowing and letting go that is hard to describe, sort of like hitting the sweet spot when you were first learning to drive stick shift.
Gates (who also surfs) notes that in time we discover the ability to enjoy “dropping in” to an experience, allowing it to unfold in its own time. My powers of concentration and my ability to be present during the challenging periods in my studio have grown, in the way a muscle that is regularly exercised becomes stronger. The voices are there, but they aren’t running the show.