Gliding: Five Rules for Your Art Making

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” — The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame Photo by Tracey Williams

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” — The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Photo by Tracey Williams

This week my question is: How can I make my life lighter? What habits or patterns cause stress?

My answer came while getting a lesson in kayaking from an expert who also makes beautiful hand painted kayaks (above). She showed me where to point and slice the water with the oar, an economy of movement that comes not from the arms pushing and pulling, but from the belly. The oar enters the water and leaves it sooner. What a liberating idea when translated into action: the rowing does not come from my pulling/pushing arms, not from forcing myself forward … but from relaxing into my torso. When I got it, it felt fluid, effortless. I was gliding instead of pushing.

The renewal I felt from a day of kayaking caused me to reflect on my tendency to push forward in my work when I could glide. So many artists help themselves by setting an intention at the start of the day. During his long life, Pablo Casals played the same music each morning. He called it the “benediction to the house”. He said this about his daily ritual:

The music is never the same for me, never.
Each time is something new, fantastic, unbelievable …
— Pablo Casals

I have moments of this exhilaration in my studio. This is also how I experience teaching — no class is ever the same, and each time it is something that inspires my work, and what happens does feel at moments, unbelievable. An antidote to dullness, old worn out patterns and the numbing overload of information, is to surround yourself with people who are creative and vitally engaged.

Don’t push so hard was a felt experience in that boat, and this feeling has stayed with me. Letting go is more difficult than it sounds, but leads to freedom of movement, and even moments of bliss.

On Being a Novice, oil on wood  Laurie Doctor

On Being a Novice, oil on wood Laurie Doctor

Here are my five rules for art making:

1. Make a list of the habits that are mindless routines, and the ones that are mindful rituals. One way to tell the difference is that the former make you tired, while the latter are renewing.

2. Decide what your ritual of benediction for the day will be. If you already know what this is, how do you keep it from becoming a mindless routine?

3. Dostoyevsky said “work, work unceasingly.” This is not the same as being a workaholic. It doesn’t mean that I have a brush or a pen in my hand in every moment. Your work begins before you are holding your tool. It is your benedictions, your commitment, and your love of what you are doing that are all part of the work.

4. Father Greg Boyle said: “Anything worth pursuing is worth failing at.” You cannot do great work if you are not willing to fail.

5. Work for yourself, not for what you think someone else wants. We live in a world of trends and clicks. The work that belongs to you has nothing to do with what is current.

The kind of earnestness that becomes effortless, at least for moments, is not goal directed, not aimed at outward accomplishment, or pleasing anyone else. Earnestness is dedicated to presence. Attend to the task at hand with ease and tenderness. The shift is from how you want to be seen to inward seeing. One must begin the work — whether it is painting or writing or gardening — with the aim of doing it for oneself, or as an offering.

I will end with this poem by Czeslaw Milosz:

A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
— Gift by Czeslaw Milosz

What have you noticed about how you can make your life lighter? I’d love to hear from you.

I have just added a new class in 2020, a sequestered retreat in Costa Rica. Come and join us: