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Mindful : June 2017
also realized the pain I felt being separated from life. The paintings made both of those concepts become very alive for me.” Her most striking painting was a self-portrait of her being strangled by a large green snake. “The paintings I made were bizarre, but they spoke to me,” she added. “I didn’t start out with a pre-conceived idea of what I was going to paint. I just trusted the brush on the paper and let it lead me.” At one point, she felt shaky and nauseous because she had no idea where she was headed. “We put so much value on a painting, that it’s going to reflect who we are,” she said. “To let go of all the things you know how to do that are kind of clever and artistic and just let the brush lead you—that was a fascinating new concept for me. I didn’t know that’s what I wanted to learn. But in hindsight that was exactly what I was looking for.” A few weeks after the retreat, I visited Barbara in her painting studio in San Francisco. It was a playful environment with festive hand- painted prayer flags hanging in the windows, walls splattered with bright colors, Jackson Pollock–style, and at one end of the room a large unfinished mural depicting the Crack in the Cosmic Egg. A gracious, strong-minded artist with warm eyes and curly gray hair, Barbara got into paint- ing in her late 20s because, she said, she felt “this pressure inside that if I didn’t deal with I was going to burst.” In her very first class with Michele Cassou, the pioneering teacher of spon- taneous painting, Barbara realized that there was something in her that wanted to come out. “It was waking me up to parts of myself that felt not included,” she recalled. “Strong feelings that I thought were too intense for the world, but they were living in me. I judged the process, I cried, I hated it, I screamed, but it was happening. And it had a voice that told me I could paint big paint- ings. And big monsters. I could explore God.” Sometimes all it took was trying a new color. “The first time I painted the color black I had all these ideas of what it would say about me,” she said. “But in the actual painting of it, my whole being came alive. It was forbidden. It was exciting. In the forbidden is a lot of stored energy. And to paint it from an innocent space brings this excitement and curiosity. That’s what’s transformative: when you wake up to the wonder that children have naturally.” One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star." FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE The most solid advice...for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough." WILLIAM SAROYAN That’s what was happening to me. Once I became conscious of the forces that were squelching my creativity—my guilt, my repressed sexual energ y, my rigid view of what constituted beautiful art—a deeper, more complex sense of beauty began to emerge. And my life began to open up in surprising ways, as well. All of a sudden, I found myself saying, “ Who gives a fuck?” a lot, especially when one of my fears arose and threatened to box me in a corner. It didn’t happen every time. I am still very much a work in progress. But at least the movement had beg un. “I don’t think most people are aware of how small they live,” said Barbara. “ We’re so used to enduring and just getting by. When you ask peo- ple, on a scale of zero to ten, how’s your energy, and a lot of times they’ll say, ‘Five, but I’m okay with that.’ What’s stopping us from going for an eight, nine, or 10?” One day when Barbara was taking a break from painting, she ran into a homeless man in her neighborhood who gave her a remarkable gift. “I used to think that painting was going to make me superhuman,” she recalled. “ But in that moment when our eyes met, I realized that he and I were just the same. The painting was actually bringing out my humanity and allowing me to really see him. This was a huge shift in how I saw painting. It wasn’t about being better than others or moving beyond anger. It was about being attuned to the way my being was responding and entering more into life.” For me, this was the ultimate takeaway. When I started this journey, I thought I was searching for a magical bag of tricks to help me turn dross into creative gold. But what I dis- covered was that creativity isn’t a fancy parlor game; it’s a more intimate way of relating to the world. “Everything leads us back to ourselves,” said Barbara. “Sometimes we have to go too far to see that. But what we usually do is play it too safe and close up. Once you start opening, you get a sense that you can stretch more, and then you begin to realize the potential that’s available to you at any given moment. The invitation of cre- ativity is to move beyond the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves. To allow life to permeate those thick walls that we think are so secure.” ● June 2017 mindful 65