In response to the recent letter on focus, Mohinder Puri of Delhi, India, wrote, “It’s easy to say that focus is possible through effort, but it has a great deal to do with innate mental capacity — what we call practicing “Dhyana” in Sanskrit. A certain level of focus always eludes you. It is the relative energy that conditions one’s level of focus. One should practice Dhyana to overcome this.”
Thanks, Mohinder. Being curious as to how the wisdom of the East might be of value in studios of the West, I’ve always been interested in meditational spin. The idea of Dhyana takes the form of “Chan” in China, “Zen” in Japan, “Seon” in Korea and “Samten” in Tibet. Dhyana is known as an instrument to gain self-knowledge, creativity and the ability to concentrate. The idea is to free the mind from the “five hindrances” (craving, aversion, sloth, agitation, doubt) and the distraction of discursive thinking. Interested?
In the individual practice of what I call “Natural Dhyana” we see variations of creative intelligence. Think of the relative abilities of different folks to simply absorb the knowledge of others. More importantly, think of our varying abilities to follow the advice of our inner gurus. Yep, all those nasty hindrances tend to get in the way. Without resorting to levitation around the studio, here are a few practical ideas:
In the morning and several times throughout your working day, systematically take time to “center” yourself. Relax, reassess, contemplate work in progress, and look ahead. Teach yourself to do this centering while simultaneously doing other tasks — priming, squeezing out, cleaning up. In the close practice of your art, learn “multi-leveling,” the ability to think of one thing while you’re thinking of another. While your mind is ostensibly at rest, look for creative opportunities for expediency and efficiency. Let “Lazy mind,” “Management mind” and “Doing mind” share life in the studio. While energy may seem boundless, it is not. It needs respect and husbanding. Very often, simple Zen-like activities can make a difference. For example, slow down your line to half its normal speed. Take time to relish brushstroke, texture or passage. Make works of art that look fast and fresh, but take longer to accomplish. Go steadily and move calmly along your chosen path.
PS: “There is no art without contemplation.” (Robert Henri)
Esoterica: A problem for some artists is the scourge of self-sabotage. This can often be traced to simple guilt — generally to do with some of the five hindrances mentioned above. Guilt promotes poor self-esteem and can ruin careers. Eliminating the source of guilt and genuinely purifying the soul is the saint’s choice — not always possible in the real world. Private meditation and Natural Dhyana, a bit like the remarkable Western convention of Confession, tends to temporarily absolve guilt, clarify direction, focus the mind and put the world more aright. Dhyana has been reported to snuff out self-defeatist gremlins.
Value of contemplation
by Vivian Anderson, Sydney, Australia
I thoroughly recognize the value of contemplation. At drawing class I was always known for my “line” in charcoal, and have since endeavoured to accomplish this attribute with the brush. Now, after some ten years of practice, this month I have had my Zen moment, and found a way to make my line with the brush. It came from slowing down and contemplation and self-belief in my “way,” and from the advice of my drawing teacher (now a well-received artist here in Sydney). He said, “Vivian, yours must be a CONSIDERED line,” i.e., a step beyond the initial reactive line — and it’s finally turned up in my paintings and I feel so complete now. My work is truly “mine” and I can focus from that point of discovery and contemplation.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’ve got a new puppy, and in the interest of housetraining him, I stop what I’m doing every two hours and go sit out in the yard with him. And I’ve suddenly got a very compelling reason to take a walk or two every day. Now that I’ve been free of familial responsibilities for a few years, and can pretty much do what I want, I thought I’d have a hard time adjusting to life with Archie. But it’s kind of nice, to stop, to walk away from the canvas, get a breath of fresh air. Seems to be a good habit; good for me, good for my carpet, good for my painting, good for the dog.
Dhyana includes paintin’ and grinnin’?
by Carol Anne McErlean
This letter validated my most recent adventure. In the last few years I have become energized by Plein Air Painting, the excitement of finding a ‘spot’ and the light.
I often try to arrive an hour or so before the light I want to begin on shapes and then when the light is just where I want it I add my shadows and highlights quickly to capture what I know is there. I am so enthralled with the process I can think of nothing but my work, which then raises my confidence level and I turn out my best work, and it is because my mind is clear and focused, that and I am usually jammin’ to Roy Orbison or Bonnie Rideout on my MP3, passersby never know what to think when this old chick is just paintin’ & grinnin’, though I get high compliments when they stop and see. Zen, Dhyana whatever, it is, it works for me!
Aikido power and peace
by Elin Pendleton, Wildomar, CA, USA
I am a practitioner of Aikido, the martial art of peace and harmony, and the “centering” and “finding one’s one point” are core to the training. I never in all my wildest dreams thought I’d be enjoying a martial art as I approach 60, especially in conjunction with my painting, but it works. Aikido loosely translates to the path or way to the oneness or harmony with the universe. It is about blending with one’s partner, not defeating them. Its founder Morihei Ueshiba was trained in most all the martial arts of Japan, and blended them to the goal of harmony, not war. In my art, I bring these thoughts to my work, and come to the easel centered and at peace when I begin, knowing I will blend the knowledge I have with the surface in front of me for a harmonious result. The lessons of aikido are powerful, as are the tools of our trade in the hands of a trained artist. The combination of these results in endeavors of superb expression of one’s inner spirit. Aikido has brought more to me than I ever thought possible. Attached is a watercolor of an aikido movement showing the flow and energy of the partnership.
Focus comes with guilt-free time
by Karl Heerdt, Lockport, NY, USA
Most if not all of my best work comes about as a result of painting while intensely focused. Or for lack of a better description, in the Zone. When I paint usually I can get into this frame of mind a couple of times in a sitting. It is a state in which painting is relatively easy, colors, composition and answers come effortlessly. And an hour passing, seems only as mere minutes. But as I said I will drift out of this zone almost like waking and need to take a break and try to find that place again. I think the key to getting there is not a Zen like philosophy, but merely knowing that I have time on my hands, such as the whole afternoon, and knowing that I am supposed to be in the studio with no outside demands or guilt that I should be doing something else. I find that when I only have a couple of hours to paint, which is more than sufficient to paint a decent painting. I still have difficulty with it because I know there is not enough time to get into the zone, or if I do, I will lose track of time and be late for all other things that I need to do that day. It is really a mind game and we are our worst enemies. But I think the key is having dedicated time, guilt-free time! The focus will follow.
Doing one thing at a time
by Charles Peck, Punta Gorda, Florida, USA
Having had the opportunity to spend a year in Southeast Asia (40 years ago) I bumped into a Theravada Buddhist monk who chose to spend some time chatting with a headstrong 20 year old and got me interested in trying to better utilize my physical tools (the mind being one of the muscle masses of the body). He told me I would always be an occidental no matter what lengths I went to and one of the phrases he taught me translated as “speaking to you is like playing a violin to a water buffalo.” Never was entirely sure whether that was for me to use with my military superiors, a summation of his efforts to affect a young westerner, or just one of the catchy phrases learned in the process of teaching me elements of his language I had not learned in the company of truly friendly, gorgeous, outgoing young ladies with an interest in guys in uniform. The gentleman did get me interested in “doing just one thing at a time completely,” didn’t matter what, could be eating, walking, breathing, reading, or painting.
Balancing head and heart
by JP Bex, Montreal, QC, Canada
The art of art is a dialogue between the head and the heart and that the art of being an artist is to simply be able to balance the two. Also, in my opinion you must imbibe your spirit and your mind before you imbibe your brush! By the way, is the Eastern word “Dhyana” in any way related to the Western name “Diana”?
(RG note) Thanks, Jean-Pierre. Diana comes from a different root. Diana is the traditional Roman Goddess of the moon, protector of forests, animals and women in childbirth.
Finding time for Dhyana
by Charlotte Hussey, QC, Canada
You raised a crucial question which is how to balance a meditation and an art practice. Just how much meditation do us harried, multi-tasking, Western artists need to do? I am sure it will vary from individual to individual, but I have gone through periods when my meditation time started crowding into my time for art-making. Part of this was due to directives from overly zealous yoga teachers, who encouraged getting up first thing to meditate. Now, as I must get off to a job, I have centered my early morning practice around my poetry writing. I am more productive that way, but am I less concentrated for not doing something like Dhyana first?
(RG note) Thanks, Charlotte. Purists will come down on me, but I find centering to be no big deal. In today’s active life, it may be difficult to find quiet time as in the ashrams of the East, so you might consider compromising by applying Natural Dhyana while doing less significant but necessary tasks.
Perils of multi-leveling
by Diana Hartel, Ashland, OR, USA
Having spent many years in Zen arts and 3 years in monastic practice I disagree to some degree with your methodology. There really is one thing at a time focus at the heart of wide awareness. We say “when one dharma (phenomenon) arises, practice one dharma.” When we try to multi-task, we are usually splitting attention and can become scattered. This does not mean one just tightly narrows focus and ignores everything else. There is a more natural process — and I like your term Natural Dhyana. It becomes most clear to people how this works when participating in lengthy silent retreats. While residing in the monastery, I was often given many tasks to carry out to assist in service or with guests. When not sitting on the cushion, we refer to it as “working meditation.” With any kind of anxiety or split attention, I could not do any of my assignments very well. When one drops into the internal stillness even amidst activity all around, one’s “focus” naturally expands to take it all in as one harmonic dance of seeing and doing — what is referred to as the activity of no-mind. There is stillness in activity, and activity in stillness. What might look like multi-level thinking or doing is not. The point is to brightly relax into what is going on right in front of you and awareness will naturally expand. It is as if the curtains or blinkers around the eyes are quietly removed. One moves in a seamless manner, and efficiency takes on new meaning as it is without struggle. There is no lazy mind. It comes to me in painting sessions, not always, but often enough. It comes in cleaning the brushes, in all the related activities of art and precedes these activities — seamlessly. And when this basic state is obscured, there are ways to bring oneself back to this inherent way of being. One crucial means in my view is located in another of your statements. I agree with you in having all the apparent and separate aspects of mind live side by side in the studio, even the ugly ones — not pushing them away or grabbing on to them. With fearless and wise love, it takes care of itself.
(RG note) Thanks, Diana. You and several other purists had something to say. See letter below.
Freedom to flow with the process
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I just happen to be reviewing my books that contain info on the “eight limbs of yoga,” this includes “dhyana” as one of the last three. It is in the section of powers. These are two fairly neutral and simple definitions from, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda. “Dharana is the binding of the mind to one place, object or idea.” “…Concentration is the beginning of meditation; meditation is the culmination of concentration. They are more or less inseparable.” “Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition toward the object.” “…The mind is fixed. Communication between meditator and object of meditation is steady.”
So in essence dharana is concentration and dhyana is meditation. I think that your multi-leveling goes against the ideas here. These are practices that require consistent attention. I do agree with you that dharana and dhyana can eliminate self-defeating habits, and I think it is because we become less attached to everything. We realize we aren’t the doer, and we release attachment to the outcome. That is the beauty of these practices, they allow freedom to flow with the process. As for guilt, it is useless. It is a false emotion that has been used to control others. There are practices to identify the root of guilt and dispel it, as one realizes it is based on distortions, not truth.
Type A personalities
by Kit Miracle, Jasper, IN, USA
There’s a difference between being a Workaholic and being a Type A personality. I am a workaholic and proud of it. I love my job. It’s a game. It’s not work if you’re having fun. I work long hours, do what it takes to get what I need to get done. However, I am able to take time off, not think about it, and come back refreshed. This is NOT work. This is FUN!
A Type A personality puts in long hours, has feelings of inferiority, is a perfectionist… and nothing is ever good enough. They do not enjoy their jobs but are more interested in competing with others, keeping score, one-upping. They cannot take time off without guilt and often take home loads of work, never take real vacations. They burn out early.
Dhyana and the achievement of ‘flow’
by Dr. Peter Berndt, The Woodlands, TX, USA
Standing as I do with one foot in the visual arts and with the other in psychiatry with specialization in the treatment of stress-related medical and psychological disorders I would like to offer some comments on the importance of Dhyana-related concepts.
The stilling of the mind, mental focusing, stress management and relaxation training are all part of the treatment of these disorders. The techniques used there are similarly relevant in the context of mental focus in the arts and as well as other areas of innovative thinking.
Mental focus can be achieved in one of two ways. One is by an effort of the will. This is done by everybody all the time but, because of mental energy expended in the process, the resultant focus is always incomplete. Optimal mental focus is achieved through being taught contemplative processes well known in the East and utilized in psychosomatic medicine where, through training, body tensions are diminished or eliminated. Once a tension-free state has been achieved the mind no longer has distracting input from various sources within the body and mental focus becomes effortless and indeed pleasurable. This effect, known as “Flow” and researched extensively by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, often happens spontaneously. Then an artist is so captivated (focused) by the work itself that the perception of time is altered radically and the work “flows” without apparent effort. It is under such circumstances that one does one’s best work.
Applying Dhyana in the studio
by Beverly Bunker
I have been practicing Tibetan Buddhism and meditation for over 30 years. Dhyana or ‘dana’ is a form of generosity, of giving freely to others as well as to oneself with no agenda. In terms of dhyana as an artist, I have often had to address generosity to myself as I plan, work, fret, etc. while creating. Our ego really likes to impose obstacles along the way…this is the concern regarding guilt. Guilt is self-imposed and , as stated in your letter, self-sabotaging. The other hindrances are no different. I once had a Tibetan Lama teacher who told me: “at least six times a day, notice that you are HERE. Just stop and notice that you are breathing!” This was the best ‘centering’ I learned. Once adopted it becomes a habit towards more awareness of what we are doing. Even while priming, just notice that you are priming; while squeezing out, just notice you are sqeezing out. Don’t let any other thoughts interrupt this awareness. If they do, notice that you are thinking! Just notice that you are doing these tasks with awareness, and then let them go. During the day, notice when you have ‘lazy mind’ — then let it go. Don’t obsess about it, same with ‘doing mind,’ etc. Just let them go after awareness has taken place. Be easy on yourself. The awareness of gradually becoming more relaxed will naturally occur.
Enjoy the past comments below for Dhyana…
Little Thompson Creek, Estes Park, CO
oil painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “Painting is really energy work. Energy work begins with grounding. Grounding begins with recognizing that we are pulsings of mud. Pulsing mud = painting.”
And also Marsha Hunter Smith of Houston, TX, USA who wrote, “I am in the middle of taking a yard that was neglected for almost twenty years and re-creating it into a serene Japanese garden. My paints are rocks, moss, stones, and plants.”
And also Diana Nicosia who wrote, “We can go into a Zen-like state or trance and paint for hours, no need for sustenance. We lose track of time while we are in this concentration. The work is fresh and filled with energy. At some point we return to everyday mode and clean up.”
And also Dinesh Thacker of Gandhidham, India who wrote, “I practice Samarpan Meditation i.e. Samarpan Dhyana. It is complete surrender to Sadguru. A Sadguru Swami Shri Shiv Krupanandji, through Samarpan Meditation, energizes Power and all the Seven Centers of Chakras get cleaned and activated. Positive Chitt (thoughts) are the main stream. In Collectivity, meditate or sit for Dhyana and keep always Positive Thoughts and your mind on Shashvat, the things that never die.”
And also JR de Wood Jr. of Pacifica, CA, USA who wrote, “Regarding focus and Dhyana, do you know anything about the 24 principles of Chinese painting?”
(RG note) Thanks, JR. There are six principles that are expressed in four characters each. For a scholarly study of these principles you might start here.
And also Randy Davis of Killingworth, CT, USA who wrote, “A really good little book to reinforce the meditational, centering experience is Ten Zen Seconds by creativity coach, Eric Maisel.”
And also Eric Maisel of San Francisco, CA, USA who wrote, “Re your column today: That’s what my new book Ten Zen Seconds is all about. It teaches artists how to use the best of Eastern mindfulness and breath awareness practices and Western cognitive therapy and positive psychology practices in ten-second breath-and-thought bundles.”