Firmly Grasped, Loosely Held
September 9, 2008
I recently completed a plein air painting workshop, which involves painting outdoors with the goal of capturing one’s initial impression and reaction to a scene. Later, while still mulling over the workshop lessons, I found myself reflecting on a book that had been used in class: [John] Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting.
John Carlson encourages us to paint what moves us, what inspires us when looking at a scene, rather than attempting to render it perfectly. He writes: “Know that the dream is necessary to the birth of any idea.” Carlson persuades us to allow ourselves to dream the dream first, before embarking upon the creative task. He explains: “It becomes a work of art, not because of the technique that was used…a picture is a work of art…because it is a sincere expression of human feeling.”
As creative artists in any medium, we are communicating our vision, our emotion, when we create our art. It is easy to become overly concerned about artistic principles, practices and technique. Yet Carlson reminds us that what causes people to connect with a work of art is the feeling that it communicates and the connection it evokes.
To create art that has impact, we need to allow ourselves to feel and notice what inspires us. How often do we allow ourselves the luxury of emotion? Sometimes it’s not convenient, or at certain times, might not even be appropriate. Yet, keeping our feelings completely at a distance not only diminishes our relationships, it keeps us from expressing ourselves artistically.
In a world that can seem cruel and heartless, some people find it threatening, potentially depressing, or even terrifying to allow themselves to feel. Others feel the need to ‘keep it together’ by numbing themselves to difficult emotions or they’ll ‘fall apart’. This attitude can also lead to substance abuse.
Allowing ourselves to feel is a courageous act that is ultimately rewarded by intensified experiences, greater insight and profundity of artistic expression. Albert Camus writes: “We all carry within us our places of exile; our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.” That transformation can occur by exploring and communicating our emotions through our art. Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With The Wolves warns us, “the can of worms you are worried about opening is far better off being out there, than festering inside yourself. If you prefer, seek a therapist who knows …the difference between guilt and remorse and about the nature of grieving and the resurrection of spirit.”
Yoga offers tools and metaphors for learning the delicate balance of focusing attention, while also allowing energy to flow. Even standing on a single foot or one’s head involves a combination of attention and relaxation. Keeping muscles too tightly contracted blocks the experience of releasing tension, and interrupts the sense of energy flowing through one’s body. Yet, too much relaxation can throw off the balance altogether. Even the somewhat precarious headstand, advocated by some yogis for increased blood circulation and oxygen flow to the brain, is best achieved with the proper balance of tension and relaxation. That same balance of tension and relaxation is the key to how we can allow ourselves to experience our emotions, without being overwhelmed by them.
One of my yoga teachers, BKS Iyengar, taught us an expression for the way to clasp our hands during headstand: our hands must be firmly grasped, loosely held. This is also a helpful way to experience an event, a memory; even the landscape or subject we wish to paint, or the music we wish to make. It involves, on the one hand, “firmly grasping” our experience by being honest about what we are experiencing, using our awareness to avoid delusion. On the other hand, our emotions are “loosely held” and allowed to flow, rather than being constrained.
Some people are comfortable experiencing their emotions, perhaps because of the way they were raised, their culture, or the therapeutic work they have done. Other people keep their emotions so “firmly grasped”; they barely know what they feel. Is there a middle path? Is there a way to firmly grasp, yet loosely hold our emotions? Can we be focused and competent, yet still able to experience our emotions so they can inform our artistic expression and deepen our relationships?
Psychologist and Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, in his book, The Wise Heart, describes how he learned to access, yet not be overwhelmed by his emotions. He finally decided to see a therapist when he became aware of how his closely guarded demeanor prevented him from experiencing the emotional depth of the new relationship that he began after leaving the monastery. Although he had become adept at systematically calming his mind, he realized he had gone to the extreme of not allowing himself to feel. His therapist told him he was using “the monk’s defense,” avoiding his experience by focusing on what he thought he should be thinking. He worked with Kornfield using a variety of therapeutic techniques to help him move his body, laugh and cry, and release his “blocked energy”.
Kornfield describes how as a child he had “so feared the explosive anger and sorrow in my home, I’d learned to suppress my own intense feelings, to stuff them inside to maintain control.” Because he also is a therapist, he is aware that many people are frightened by their feelings and that some turn to meditation in hope that it will help them “transcend the messiness of the world”. He explains “this is a false transcendence, a denial of life. It is fear masquerading as wisdom. Kornfield offers a better alternative, a “basic alphabet of working with emotion.” Essentially it is mindfulness training, which is now recognized as effective both in Eastern and Western philosophical and psychological schools of thought. To explain the practice, Kornfield uses the acronym RAIN: Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-identification.
Recognition involves acknowledging the reality of our experience, here and now.
Kornfield explains, “with recognition we step out of denial” a sort of blind spot, that “undermines our freedom.” Seeing clearly gives us freedom to notice things we were avoiding. If we are not seeing clearly, we limit the depth of the experience we could be having. He gives many examples, including the “would-be painter who denies his love of making art.” By denying our true feelings, whether they are dissatisfaction, anger, pain or ambition, we suffer. Likewise, Kornfield points out, “If we deny our values, our beliefs, our longings, or our goodness, we also will suffer…Recognition moves us from delusion and ignorance toward freedom.”
Once we have Recognition, the next step is Acceptance. Acceptance does not mean passivity, or giving up. It is a realization that a particular situation exists. Overcoming the aversion we may be feeling to the way things are, can be transformative. We can still wish things were different, and we can still work on changing them. However it helps to first accept things as they are. As Zorba the Greek declares, “To live is to roll up your sleeves and embrace trouble.”
After Recognition and Acceptance, the next step is Investigation. By investigating we can see our situation more clearly, so we can avoid becoming confused or disheartened. Investigation helps us to determine what is happening at many levels. It involves first examining our bodily sensations, then our emotions, thoughts and images, as well as our judgments. By looking deeply, we can explore the stories we are telling ourselves and how we respond to them. We can then decide if we could benefit from letting go of some of our habitual stories in order to interpret things in a different way. This can open up a wider range of responses so we can see things from a broader point of view. Kornfield describes part of his work as helping people “drop below the level of their story and see the beauty that shines all around them.”
Recognition, Acceptance and Investigation help prepare the way for Non-identification, the last step of the RAIN process. Non-identification is a method of self-examination in which we begin to see we are more than a particular viewpoint or perspective. We can experience a more complete sense of openness and awareness. The goal of Non-identification is to no longer be bound by the fears and illusions of the small sense of self. Experiencing our small sense of self feels so frightening because it is a half truth. Greater peace and creativity come from seeing a larger perspective: experiencing a connection to a life force so powerful and expansive, it is easiest to call it “God”, though some prefer to describe it in scientific terms. Kornfield explains non-identification as the “abode of awakening, true peace, nirvana…. no longer bound by the fears and illusions of the small sense of self.”
This explanation of mindfulness using the RAIN tool box, along with the metaphor of “firmly grasped” attention and “loosely held” emotions, is offered here as a way to have a more open heart and to free up more energy for the creative expression of life. These tools and metaphors also can assist us if the emotions we access start feeling overwhelming.
Allowing ourselves to experience our emotions can evoke memories of hate and anger in response to a past or current event. The challenge is to learn the “appropriate” way of handling these emotions. Kornfield writes of how Buddha and other teachers taught people “hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. Jesus Christ taught us to “love our enemies.” How is this possible? Using Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation and Non-identification can help us to understand how we are all in the same boat and can remind us how to communicate as brothers and sisters.
How do you actually apply the principles of “RAIN” when an overwhelming emotion occurs? The following hypothetical situation is offered to provide an example. Of course there are many variations in how this process might be used, based on a person’s unique situation:
- Recognize, by noticing your thoughts, physical sensations or behaviors that something unsettling is going on. Perhaps you feel your jaw clenched, growing irritation, a tight gut and a desire to lash out. You begin to realize you feel angry.
- Accept that you are angry, rather than pretending it doesn’t matter, or that you shouldn’t feel that way. Simply accept the reality of what you are feeling. Don’t ignore or fight the experience, be truthful.
- Investigate this emotion, asking what is causing you to feel this way? It might be, upon deeper reflection that you see you are angry because you believe you are not being appreciated or valued. Looking deeply might show you that you are angry because someone has caused you to feel insecure. Understanding this might help you see that habitually you get angry when an interaction causes you to feel badly about your self. By refocusing on what you need to do to feel better about yourself, you can re-direct your feelings of anger in a more positive way.
- Use Non-identification to see that when you only identify with your “small self” you feel insecurity because you see how insignificant you are compared to the vastness of creation. By seeing yourself as part of the vast Life Force, you begin to see that you have value because you are part of it. You also began to see the person you feel anger towards has value for this reason as well. Recognize that your insecurity is caused by only being in touch with the “small self.” Redirect your thinking to feel a connection to all the generations of humanity and life on the planet that extends beyond your individual circumstance. Be willing to allow this perspective to cause you to feel some compassion towards yourself as well as the other person.
Zen teacher, Toni Packer, observes: “The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love, and intelligence has nothing to do with any outer tradition. It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”
The various teachings that have been touched upon here can be used as safety valves for unleashing the power of our stifled emotions that are barriers to our artistic expression. Allowing ourselves to tap into the intensity of our emotions is energizing. Allowing the appropriate expression of our emotions frees up the vast amount of energy we often are using to suppress our feelings and prevent their release.
“Loosely holding” our emotions with love, compassion and greater understanding helps us to unblock what may have been preventing a connection to a deeper experience of life. Connecting to our feelings and expressing them is what inspires our art and moves our viewers. It is what can create great art.