Tail, Arrow, Feather, Match

My First Stroke

Tail2Think of the brush as a friend, he says. Hold it straight up and down, thumb on one side, all four fingertips curled gently around the other.

I try, but my hands choose habit. I am friends with my pens, so I hold the calligraphy brush like a ball-point ready to write. One of my fellow workshop participants says he purposefully did not bring pens today because he doesn’t want to take notes and transform this experience into a college class. I brought four to the workshop and had two more in my suitcase back at the cabin—just in case.


Bow and Arrow

Our teacher’s name is Alok Hsu Kwang-han. I saw his photograph in the catalog for this retreat center, and decided on the spot: I am going to travel across the country to spend the weekend with this guy.

This is unlike me. I research and ruminate. I am a skeptic, not a devotee. But Alok’s smiling eyes were enough information. I figured he must know something I don’t.

I was right. He is the opposite of me. He is patient, present, and relaxed. I am anxious and ambitious. And angry. There is a woman in our workshop who shows up late to every session, and when she enters the room, she doesn’t move quietly to her station and join us. Instead, she bumps my arm or my back on her way through the room and interrupts the guy at her table to find out what we are doing, even when it’s obvious he’s mid-process or mid-stroke. He is kind and calm and answers her questions every time. He never gets annoyed, so I am even more annoyed on his behalf.

Tail3At lunch, I sit down with Alok and a few others. They have all just finished eating, but I could tell from the remnants on his plate that he had only eaten clean, undressed food: simple greens, maybe some kind of vegetables. I put down my plate of excess: too much ravioli, Caesar salad, two pieces of rosemary focaccia, and a slice of chocolate cake with white icing. No wonder I will later feel like there’s a stone in my stomach when we return to our workspace. No wonder Alok seems to float around the grounds. He looks so cute in his peach colored robe and funny, yellow hat.

We had started our day outside with a bit of Qi Gong and silence, surrounded by a circle of trees. When we did the Bow and Arrow meditation, I thought, I need to practice this every day. I followed Alok’s form until my own rhythm kicked in. Breathe in and pull the bow back…breathe out and release the arrow…Breathe in and step out…breathe out and step in…Breathe in and stretch the energy out…breathe out and let it go….


Making Friends with Distractions
Alok asks us to hug the trees. We giggle and look around nervously, but we do it. More intimately, he says. Press your body against the tree. Feel its essence. Become the tree.

I’m not quite there, but I do feel more human—less robotic—with my arms and legs wrapped around the bark. My hands and knees are sticky with sap and the tree smells like roasted almonds. A few insects buzz around my head, but I don’t swat them away, because they belong in this beautiful environment. I’m starting to feel that I, too, belong in this beautiful environment. Make friends with distractions, says Alok, freedom is within. This I understand. If I regard something differently, I am not made of stone. I can change.

When we are back inside painting, the late, loud woman complains that the camera and photographer are changing the energy in the room because they are recording our experience and are therefore creating a distraction. But whatever, she says, it’s fine.

I smile at her. I had the same initial thought when I saw the cameraman and realized we were all being filmed. Alok says, please paint “making friends with distractions.” I make two, thick, parallel strokes on the left side: the trees. Three small strokes on the top right: an insect. Three large spots on the bottom: us being the trees. Space in the middle: freedom is within. I like this painting because I think it’s clever.


I find great meaning in it. It reminds me of our morning meditation and delivers a message. But then I look around the room and I like everyone else’s paintings more than mine. They are experimenting with technique and are not trying to be clever. Why do I turn everything into a contest?


The Idea of the Breakthrough is not the Breakthrough
I am thinking about letting go. I am thinking about finding freedom. I am thinking about making friends with distractions. I am thinking that I wish I could stop thinking.

Alok talks about Wu Wei. It’s a compelling theory, but how does a creature with a spinning mind come to rest in emptiness and find freedom from intentions?

He seems comfortable with waiting. With standing. Sitting. With working. Observing. Stopping. Moving. Speaking. Being silent. Work and rest, no difference, he says. Don’t have preferences.

No preferences? But I’ve been devising my list all day! I wish everyone would come to class on time. I wish everyone in my cabin would go to bed when I do. I wish I hadn’t told the airport security woman that I had some face lotion in my suitcase, because she took away my five ounce bottle of Oil of Olay. How is that a victory over terrorism? Once we got past security, the woman in line behind me whispered, hey, I have the same bottle! But she got to keep hers, because she didn’t tell them it was there, and they didn’t check. I wish I had been dishonest. Then I’d still have my lotion.

Tail5Tail6Alok offers us prompts: haiku, quotes from Rumi or Lao Tzu, music, movements, meditations. He says something about life and I paint a plant in a glass trap. I understand what I intended, but the painting feels flat. It doesn’t breathe.

We are offered another inspiring idea and once again, I make plans and try to align my strokes with my mind’s designs. I want to break through my barriers, so I think about them and split them apart. But when I pick up the brush and try to express this on the page, I am still thinking: the idea of the breakthrough is not the breakthrough.

Who am I?
We breathe. I take off my shoes. We stand. A long time. We breathe. We stand. Alok looks at us. Or doesn’t. I can’t quite tell because I’m in the back. I take my visor off, relax my forehead, and stop smiling. When I stop smiling, my eyes rest in their sockets. When my eyes rest, my temples release some tension, and then my jaw loosens up. I hadn’t even realized those muscles were tight until I let them go.

I take a long, deep breath and my back cracks loud enough for a woman two rows in front of me to turn around and say, Wow! Good one! It’s such a sweet, simple gesture of support. I want to hug her.

I have no idea who I am sometimes. How can I paint this prompt? Who am I? repeats Alok. Paint this.

I place both my palms on the blank paper and bend my knees so I can remain in this posture without putting pressure on my lower back. I smooth the paper with both hands and it makes the same sound as caressing my skin when I have no lotion on.

I feel a strange combination of power and humility. I can create the world. A world, any world, my world, no-world. All thoughts fall away and I look back at the blank paper. I pick up the largest brush. It is inscribed with Chinese writing that says “creating through nondoing.”

I soak the brush in the ink three times without adding water. The pure, black ink thickens the bristles. I hold the brush straight up and down and curl my fingers gently around it. I apply the brush to the paper and sweep upwards. I have no idea why this moves me so much. The stroke is saturated, satisfying, complete. Who am I? I am here.

I start to cry—silently—joyfully—I surprise myself. Alok happens to be walking past me at this moment. He stands next to me. We are touching shoulders. We both face the painting and look at it. We sway together for a few seconds. As he walks away to gaze upon everyone else’s work, I notice that my brush has left three droplets of ink on the top, right corner of the paper. I like that this piece seems to finish somewhere off the page, somewhere unknown to me.Tail7

The rodents here have no fear of humans
Our prompt is from Lao Tzu. The true traveler has no destination and no true time of arrival.

Everyone is absorbed in their work. I giggle and paint this creature in the grass. Every time I see an animal here, I stop what I am doing and observe it. The deer stare back at me, the rabbits wait to see what I’ll do next, the squirrels ignore me, and the groundhogs keep eating. None of them scamper off the way they do in the city. God I feel good here.



Not Knowing is the Most Intimate

I press the brush three times into the paper. Perfection, I think. But then, if they are good marks or bad marks, they are products of my assessment—not my hand, not my heart. What if these marks want to be something else?

I wash out all the ink from my brush, empty my bowl, and refill it with clean water. Then I apply the water-soaked brush to my three perfect forms until the entire paper is wet and dark. I can’t tell the difference between water marks and ink stains. I have no idea what this thing will look like when it dries.

In the academic world where I live, knowing is essential. Here, we paint: not knowing is the most intimate. I occasionally glance back at the painting as it dries, and I cannot assign meaning to it, because it looks different every time. Even after the paper is crisp and dry, the painting still looks wet. It whispers things to me I can’t explain.




Empty Bamboo Heart

Tail13We all share our work with the other participants. The late, loud woman offers a beautiful piece and the crowd laughs as she comments on it. She is spontaneous and unrehearsed, and doesn’t even realize she’s helping me stop planning an explanation for the audience. Was that funny? she says as she comes to stand near me. Why are they laughing?

Because you are so cute, I say. It’s true. She doesn’t even realize how charming she can be. Her innocence is refreshing.

Later, in another group circle, she confesses, I come from a family of overthinkers, and sometimes it hurts. She touches her chest.

Wow, no wonder I am so hard on her. She’s me.


Tail, Arrow, Feather, Match

I’ve been calling Alok by his first name, because this is how he introduced himself to us. Some people here call him Master. They see him as an enlightened being. I see him as a human being, just like the rest of us, but I also find it easy to idealize him. He does seem so present, accepting, at peace. Maybe he really is past a certain level of struggle. When I ask him if this is true, he says generously, perhaps better not to answer your question. If you idealize me, you will soon knock me off my pedestal. Better to find those qualities in yourself.

I’ve been sharing a cabin with a stunning woman named Lulu. She feels like an old friend even though we just met. Her beauty is natural, sensual, heart-centered. She is here for a different workshop, but happened to cross paths with Alok on the road. He touched my arm and I burst out into tears! His light is undeniable, she explains, like the sun.

We talk about enlightenment. Her understanding and mine are so different. I’ve always thought of enlightened beings as morally evolved. They can do no wrong. And since all human beings are fallible, I’ve decided there is no such thing as an enlightened human being. Alok is a wonderful, delightful man and an exceptional artist, but he is not without ego. He’s mentioned his resume, the number of facebook friends he has. See? He’s no better than the rest of us.

Ah, another contest. I’ve been competing with myself: whoever can be most like the master will win. But then every single time I look around the room at all my new artist-friends and their paintings, I am utterly delighted with each expression of the moment that appears in front of them in ink on this delicate paper. Everybody is masterful in their own way.

Lulu says she could feel Alok’s presence from across the field before they met on the road. He emanates light, she says. I could feel his warmth. That’s how I think of enlightenment. A feeling of lightness.

Me too. I feel this too. He is an incredible facilitator. Every single person in that workshop felt safe enough to explore, experiment, unveil.

Who Am I? Alok says once again, Paint this. We get another opportunity. I jump right in and this is what comes from my brushes:

Tail1I don’t know what it is, but I bring it to our final circle to share with the group. When it’s my turn to talk, I say it looks like a tail. I think I would have one if I could. Sometimes I wish I was a dog, so I could lay on my back and let friendly hands pet my belly. What an easy way to connect. No words. Just affection, relaxation. I realize: I do feel embraced by this group. These beautiful people have helped me put away my scorecard and just have fun.

I look back at my painting and now it looks like a curved arrow. Now feather, now match striking sparks straight from the elements. This piece feels alive, infinite, unplanned, and new every time I look at it.

Alok says, A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

Everyone here is singing.

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