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Mindfulness in Craft

Winter 2011
Winter 2011
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Sukey Hughes is the author of Washi: The World of Japanese Paper. She lived in Japan for nearly four years, researching papermaking and studying under papermaker Goto Seikichiro. She has been a bookmaker, printer, painter, and is now completing a novel.  Years ago a friend, studying weaving under a wise and accomplished Navajo teacher, asked her mentor for advice on how to work. The teacher thought for a while. "Mind your business," she replied, "walk lightly, and follow a path with heart." For years I have thought about what the teacher meant. Today her words suggest to me the essence of creating with mindfulness: Put your full attention to your work; move through life lightly; and pursue work that cultivates your authentic spirit. This, I believe, is the true work of the artist. It is also how the artist best serves.

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What is mindfulness? It might be called meditation in action. It is stilling the mind, bringing a beautifully spacious focus to whatever we are doing at any moment. It is emptying the mind of thoughts in order to be fully present. It is doing what we're doing exactly when we're doing it. This quality kind of attention, with awareness, greatly enhances our life force and creativity. It also helps us to cultivate a caring presence. In 1980 through 1981 I did intensive meditation training at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. It was probably the most important work I have ever undertaken. Over the years it has helped me to observe my mind and apply a measure of mindfulness to whatever I am doing, especially in creative work. Art is an adventure that asks us to stretch beyond our comfort zones and take risks. Applying mindfulness to our work allows us to approach it with a kind of playful focus, and yet to be the boss of it. The art or craftwork we produce is always imbued with the spirit we have brought to it. Yet how we practice our craft, prepare our materials, and approach each task may be more important than what we produce. And the rituals and rhythms of our work can serve to bring us back to states of mindfulness. As our worlds become increasingly busy, rarely are we fully present to what we are doing. In an attempt to save time and get things done, it is more common to multitask. As artists we may think it is possible to talk on the phone while gessoing a canvas and listening for the weather report on TV, but science tells us that we are only capable of breaking our attention from one thing to another. On any given day, we may do many things by rote, eating our food without tasting it, hearing people talk but not listening, or taking a walk and not paying attention to what we see on the way. We daydream as we work, realizing afterward we have done a task wrong, or overlooked something important. If we stop to pay attention to our thoughts, we realize there is a Chatty Cathy doll within that never stops talking, spitting out a continual stream of self-criticism, comparison, judgment, plans, fantasies, and regrets. The result is an undercurrent of anxiety that we have almost come to consider normal. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes on the cause of suffering, "In meditation we can reconnect with our heart and discover an inner sense of spaciousness, unity, and compassion underneath all the conflicts of thought. The heart allows for the stories and ideas, the fantasies and fears of the mind without believing in them, without having to follow them or having to fulfill them. When we touch beneath all the busyness of thought, we discover a sweet, healing silence, an inherent peacefulness in each of us, a goodness of heart, strength, and wholeness that is our birthright." 1 Mindfulness practice takes that dusty mind and sends it through a car wash. The phrase "being in the moment" is overused these days, but mindful- ness allows us to experience each moment just as it is, and savor it. Like meditation, mindfulness means stopping to be in the silence between thoughts, the space between two breaths. It means to step into the moment-by-moment pleasure and wonder that lie behind everything. It is the mind of haiku poetry. Hallmarks of the creative process are two seemingly opposing elements, play and risk. I believe that art is an act of courage; in creating, we push out into unknown territory to bring forth something new. At its best, creative work has all the thrill—and fear—of a roller coaster ride. Every time we begin, we are children pushing through gates into a secret garden, trapeze artists about to jump off the platform and fly into the air, explorers stepping foot on unknown, often swampy, continents. Art is an adventure, an excitement, a game that grabs you by the hair, shakes you upside down, and won't let you go until it's had the best of you. It is a discovery, and what the artist ultimately discovers through his art is his own self. Plunging into creation, we confront the great mysteries. But risks entail fear. At every turn of the creative process, a new decision must be made. Do I paint the nose greenish, or bluish? Do I add a swirl here, or leave the design severe? Add this; no, take it away. One decision after another makes us sometimes ask, am I having fun yet? If we can work with a simple, focused mind, ignoring critical, editing thoughts, quelling the pressure of having to create something successful, something that will sell, then we can open the space for something new and inspired to burst forth. We absolutely need the freedom to make mistakes. Even if you have practiced your craft for thirty years, it is a great thing to approach your work as a beginner. Have you ever had the experience of taking a class to learn a new craft, to learn techniques and explore possibilities? You didn't care whether or not you ended up with something special. There was only the excitement of learning something new. You were not frivolous, you put in good effort, and were absorbed to the bone. And, lo and behold, you created something wonderful. I am amazed with the first necklace I made, the first Russian icon I painted. They are fine pieces, reminding me of what one can do with a beginner's mind. But that second novel, that second painting—the ones created when ambition colored our thoughts—are often not so wonderful. When the mind is empty, fresh ideas can enter. Delightful surprises can pop up. Sometimes it happens that the need to push through a creative block causes such tension that we have a tremendously inspired breakthrough. More typically though, our thoughts intrude, and fear has us in its grip. We tense up, afraid of doing something "wrong." In a 60 Minutes interview, Wynton Marsalis said that if you are not making mistakes as a musician, you are not taking risks. Being mindful helps to clear away fearful thoughts, intuition opens up, and creativity flows again. Mindfulness also enables us to work with precision, efficiency, and balance. It keeps us in ownership of our work, not to mention our lives. As a result, creativity blooms. I was taking a walk by an athletic field one day when I heard the soccer coach belt out the words, "Own it! Own it!" He was yelling at his student to "own" the ball, to not be scared of it but to take charge of it. My teacher Maezumi Roshi used to tell us to "be the boss of your own life." Not to be bossy, he clarified, but to take full responsibility for our lives and be present in them. To truly show up. To "own" our work we must first master technique and learn to quiet our minds. Only after that, does breaking the rules of art work. Then we can approach our work with the ease of a master, for whom artistic challenges become focused play. As you begin a project, prepare your physical space as well as mental space, clearing both of clutter. Make a plan, and assemble all tools and materials. Turn off the ringer on your phones, shut down the computer, and close the door. Let go of all agendas and ambitions. Take some time to get to know your materials. If you are a papermaker, look at the fiber. What is this living pulp? Place some in your palm and separate the fibers with your fingers for a moment, becoming aware of its sensuous texture, its beauty, its smell, its strength, its softness. Get a sense of the tree that still lives in the bark. Ahhh! Know you are about to give the plant new life. It is helpful to take several deep breaths. A Japanese calligrapher will center himself by quietly and steadily grinding the ink in the sumi well. When you are making a sheet of paper, give all of your attention to churning the pulp in the vat. You are creating a spacious readiness—an invitation for Presence to enter. In my book Washi I quoted three anonymous Japanese papermakers: These hands making paper – Repeating and repeating, How many times Over and over again As the winter day dawns. Good paper is made in quietness – I confront the paper mould, composed. Keeping my mind like fresh water, I can make pure paper.2 I once heard Zen teacher and author Peter Matthiessen say that Zen practice gives a kind of precision. Precision? What was he talking about? After some experience in meditation I knew what he meant. Mindfulness creates a wonderful hand-to-eye coordination. An object falls and suddenly, as if by magic, you catch it midair. Without knowing how, your tennis game improves without practice. Your movements seem to have the precision of dance, or the effortlessness of a master calligrapher's brush strokes, flowing and graceful motions that are both efficient and exact. In my time in Japan I watched many papermakers going about their work. They worked from a long tradition of techniques that were born out of necessity. In order to make a living as papermakers, they worked under severe time restraints. Years ago, papermakers would walk miles to the open markets carrying great packs of paper on their backs to sell. When they got home, they would immediately begin making the next batch, soaking, cleaning, cooking, and hand beating the bark, forming it into sheets and drying it for the next market maybe ten days later. And so on, all through the winter. Papermaking was labor intensive, to put it mildly; craftspeople had to be efficient. Their time-proven traditions kept them on track with an economy of steps and movements and enabled the work to remain meticulous, the resulting papers beautiful. These craftspeople were probably not students of Zen, but they practiced a kind of mindful meditation in their work. Ritual might be defined as a set of ordered, ceremonious actions performed with intention. Rituals are an outward demonstration of an inner experience. They may consist of prayers or a flow of repetitive actions that express a sacred purpose. Ritual actions are meant to be performed mindfully, and, conversely, the practice of ritual can instill mindfulness in the performer. Ritual is not in itself spirituality, but most spiritual practices use rituals. Their intention, it might be said, is to call in grace. They are an attempt to narrow the gap between everyday existence and the sacred. Through rituals we awaken ourselves to stay focused and centered, reminding ourselves of our intention to connect with the Other. When ritual is performed robotically, without presence, it loses its power to connect. But with clear intention, every movement, even rising from a chair, can be a ritual, a dance, expressing our awareness of our connectedness and interdependence. Rituals are imbued with meaning. They demonstrate that we have shown up. We arrive and greet life, to find life already reaching out and greeting us. Ritual was my bugaboo when I first started training in Zen. There was a seemingly endless stream of ritual: praying and chanting, bowing, prostrating; all had to be performed on cue to bells, clappers, drums, and gongs. During formal retreats, even how we ate our meals was ritualized, down to the last bite of food and the ceremonial cleaning of the bowls. I was self-conscious, lost, and frustrated. Why all this ritual, I wondered? Would I ever learn it? Did I even care? People were compassionate, and helped me through. Once I learned the rituals, I really enjoyed settling into them. They not only reminded me why I was there, but also, as they became second nature, they helped me to stay centered. Rituals acted as the bridge between meditation and moving out into the world again. In bowing, we express humility and pay homage to those before us who have paved the way. Prayers and chants have profound words, prying open our hearts and hammering away at crystallized habits of thinking. Sensei James Ishmael Ford said, "…all of Zen's rites and rituals are constantly pointing to the same place, to the realization of no separation between the self and the ten thousand things."3 Each creative endeavor has its own rituals. This is especially true in traditional crafts. In adhering to certain time-honored techniques. we often repeat a motion over and over again. Let us "own" our work then, performing its tasks mindfully and efficiently. The ego is concerned with goals, not means. Yet everything we create is a true reflection of our state of mind. Between you and your creation, no separation. One Japanese papermaker told me he could read in a finished sheet of paper whether or not the maker was arguing with his spouse! Wisdom from such diverse sources as the Bhagavad-Gita and German mystic Meister Eckhart admonish us to work with care, attention, skill, and heart, but to have no ulterior purpose in our work. Not so easy, especially when we feel that we must make our living by feeding the demands of the marketplace. Often we succumb, creating what we think others want, then wonder where along the way we lost our joy in making things. When we put aside the clutter of fearbased thoughts in the act of creating, the piece evolves through the energy of the work itself. Zen teacher John Daido Loori wrote, "\[When\] the self disappears, the brush paints itself, the dance dances itself, the poem writes itself. There is no longer a gap between artist, subject, audience, and life."4 If the mind is calm and the heart engaged, we are more likely to make a beautiful pot, a gorgeous painting, or a sheet of paper that speaks to the soul. But the unexpected gift is in the journey itself, the entire process— things going well and not going well, working patiently through the flubs, and celebrating the triumphs. Nothing we create is ever the end piece, something so perfectly crafted that no more pieces are now necessary. In art, there is always more to say. No story we write, no piece of paper we form, no tapestry we weave is ever perfect. Perfection is an impossible dream. What we can create is work of genuineness. Craftwork that approaches perfection often has a sterile quality; the mind of the observer has no place to go with it, no place to move and create with its own imagination. We may marvel at superb technique, but when all is said and done, we are bored with the piece. That is why Japanese tea connoisseurs fell in love with the rough Korean rice bowls made for common use. They were not made with any idea of creating something special or perfect. Leonardo da Vinci said that there is no art where the spirit does not work with the hand.5 When our hands are aligned with our spirit, when we still our minds and create with care and aware presence, magic happens. You have probably experienced this, that feeling of being "in the zone." You have stepped into that space where creation seems to move through you, and the piece seems to create itself. There is a heightened sense of being alive, at ease, and in harmony with all that exists. The small self disappears, and we are deeply engaged in life. Suddenly we appreciate all that exists, taking pleasure in simple things. We feel clear and spacious again, simple and sweet, as when we were very young. Being an artist of any kind means working with the mystery of things. Sometimes our creations carry us, not so much to answers as to a sense of wonder, to ever more creative questions. The best art inspires and demands a confrontation with truth. It hits us with the shock of recognition. It might be said that we do not create art, but through the process of creating, we allow one mystery after another to reveal itself. Mindfulness occurs without strain. It is not so much doing things a "right" way, as doing things skillfully. An internal power builds. Encountering problems in the work, as we always do, we embrace the difficulty and work with patience to solve them with an open heart. When we work with ease, mindfully and playfully, practice turns into mastery. And isn't that also the way to live? When we make art, we are giving a gift to the world. When we make art mindfully, we are giving a gift to the world and we are giving a gift to ourselves. In this way work becomes prayer, gratitude, and service—meaningful and full of the force of life. ___________ notes 1. Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 50. 2. Sukey Hughes, Washi: The World of Japanese Paper (Tokyo: Kodansha Int., 1978), 71 and 113. 3. James Ishmael Ford, Sensei, dharma talk at the Henry Thoreau Zen Sangha, First Unitarian Society, West Newton, Massachusetts, July 2, 2001, http://www (accessed July 24, 2011). 4. John Daido Loori, The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), 62. 5. Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 2002).