Twice a year I return to Taos, New Mexico, to teach. Outside our lodge at the Mabel Dodge Luhan Retreat there is a magnificent old cottonwood tree. It is fed by water in the arroyo it rises above.
At our refuge in Taos, situated next to sacred Pueblo land, we feel the closeness of the landscape. It is high desert, and the presence of this tree is welcome shade and vertical majesty.
There is something that happens when working together in a contemplative atmosphere without distraction. It calls to mind big questions: How do we make our best work? How do we renew our creative well? What are the roots of the happiness we find in it? We have some answers at hand. Many studies have proven what we already know: Happiness does not come from fame or fortune. Its roots are not talent, age or IQ. Happiness is not the power to perform, display or be attractive. According to research conducted by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the roots of happiness lie in being completely immersed in what you are doing. You forget about yourself and your worries, and allow time to become timeless, a condition Csikszentmihalyi labels “flow.” Being in the flow brings about your best work, the work that belongs to you. The work seems effortless because it is emanating from you in a natural and unforced way.
And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?
– Mary Oliver
Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches
When working with others, rather than in solitude, there is an inherent cross-pollination. Community adds to the experience of flow, while flow flourishes in an atmosphere of friendliness and contemplation.
We gathered in Taos to investigate the possibility of a “fifth element.” Fueled by the natural environment of the high desert (earth), the vast horizon and the noisy magpies guarding their nests (air), the sound of stream over stone in the arroyo (water), and the sublime sunsets (fire), we set ourselves to exploring this fifth element, which has borne many names. The ancient Greeks called it aether. But I prefer the name given to it by the alchemists of the middle ages: quintessence.
Why did they feel the need to add a fifth element? I think it is because throughout all time, humans have felt the need to express not just the graspable physical ingredients of life, but also the intangible, the immeasurable, the acausal. The four elements can all be measured. The fifth element is unmeasurable. It is the invisible force that accompanies a feeling of ecstasy for the receiver, that gives the maker the feeling that he or she has nothing to do with what is happening, and that one has stepped into an alternate reality.
Does quintessence correspond to grace?
One definition of grace is the condition of being favored, or setting up favorable conditions — what is sometimes referred to as active waiting or readiness. Although grace is something that comes of its own accord, we put ourselves in auspicious conditions by setting aside uninterrupted time. Grace is also a verb, as in gracing one with your presence; bestowing. Grace is an adjective, as alluded to in music: a grace note is something added that is not essential to the harmony or melody. It is a note tossed in, that exists apart from the vital structure of the music. A grace note is something unexpected that is given through sound.
We began our class with The Word by Tony Hoagland, talking about your list of things to do:
Down near the bottom
of the crossed-out list
of things you have to do today,
between “green thread”
and “broccoli” you find
that you have penciled “sunlight.”
Resting on the page, the word
is as beautiful, it touches you
as if you had a friend
and sunlight were a present
he had sent you from some place distant
as this morning — to cheer you up,
and to remind you that,
among your duties, pleasure
is a thing,
that also needs accomplishing
Do you remember?
that time and light are kinds
of love, and love
is no less practical
than a coffee grinder
or a safe spare tire?
Tomorrow you may be utterly
without a clue
but today you get a telegram,
from the heart in exile
proclaiming that the kingdom
the king and queen alive,
still speaking to their children,
–to any one among them
who can find the time,
to sit out in the sun and listen.
Grace is the sunlight resting on the page of your list of things to do, the thing that catches you off guard and reminds you of stars and sky and something beyond yourself. Aah, such an unbidden reminder is green in the body, honey in the heart. (Wallace Stevens) When the reference point is something larger than yourself and your own small story, your breathing expands and your perception opens.
Grace is not dependent on what happens, who you are or what time it is. It has nothing to do with being right or good. It comes as a gift, unexpected, simply there, without being struggled for, fought for or earned. For the maker, grace arises naturally, as when a dancer is no longer memorizing moves, but moves wholeheartedly, without thought. She is grace-full. This is what happened at the beginning of our class — each student making her own big, blind and graceful brush stroke … I get to see sunlight resting on their faces when they open their eyes and see what they have done.
However you define grace, or the fifth element, it is invisible and eludes explanation of causes. You can point to it and say it is not contingent on what you do or how you act, it is not based on effort, being bad or good, right or wrong. It is something that is freely given. Anyone and everyone is a candidate. It is a spontaneous gift from the inside that is met on the outside. Or a spontaneous gift from the outside that is met on the inside. It is an invisible exchange.
You make yourself ready to be visited by grace when you show up in your sacred space, your temenos, for making. Have you noticed how when you “are in the zone” you cannot make a wrong turn? Every direction seems to be the right move.
Quintessence can be seen as a symbol for how we are all inextricably connected through something bigger than ourselves.
Here is what it is important to remember: You already have everything you need. You don’t need to add anything to your materials, your talent or your ability. You don’t need to subtract anything from your age. The only thing you need to do is to remove impediments. For the most part, these impediments are mental constructs. Wherever you are, no matter how lost or lonely, this is the place to begin.
Most of the students have little or no experience in calligraphy. I devise alphabets for class that are easy to enter, and simple to execute. It is satisfying to see the work that comes from “beginner’s mind”.
Returning home, I am filled with the grace notes from each of the students, from the place, and from the way I forget about myself when teaching. I am filled with energy for my paintings. I am filled with gratitude for the balance to my solitude that teaching brings. I am filled with gratitude for my students.
I am the cottonwood tree, fed by the water of the arroyo.
When have you been caught off guard, felt yourself disappear and your heart open? Can you recall a moment of grace? I’d love to hear from you.
In 2020, the theme for my classes is Stone, Tree, Eye.: