Inquiring Mind Article

This essay appeared in Inquiring Mind, the magazine of the Insight Meditation Society. It was a special issue on the topic of art and dharma practice. The version that appears here is slightly amended for clarity. Robert Spellman, “Three Artists on Art and Dharma,” Inquiring Mind 18, no. 2 (2002):26

In my Introduction to Drawing class at Naropa University, we spend the first several weeks drawing in pencil, very slowly, very precisely with an emphasis on relaxation. It is repetitive, ordinary, sometimes boring. At the same time, it is satisfying and stabilizing. This builds confidence. I call this first phase “settling.” One benefits by remaining in this mode for a long time—I find myself returning to it again and again. After some weeks of settling, I introduce a second stage, which I call “leaping.” Here, we do multiple, two-minute ink portraits of one another in rapid succession. We do this without instruction or warm-up. This provokes a kind of panic. One has to leap; there is no choice. The provocation unseats any complacency that may have seeped in during the settling stage. Humor plays an important role. Students are pushed beyond what is familiar, and the results, the portraits in this case, are often hilarious.²

These two stages of settling and leaping are related to the two phases of meditation training: shamatha and vipashyana.¹ Shamatha, the first stage of focused discipline, develops peace or calm abiding, while vipashyana, the second stage, develops insight or clear seeing. In both meditation practice and artistic discipline, one needs initially to suspend one’s conceptual mind. During the first, narrowly focused stage of training, one relaxes physically and mentally again and again, letting the mind settle itself into a state of non-wandering. There it simply rests, awake. Then, within this relaxed alertness, one may recognize conceptuality, the mind’s habit of naming and categorizing, of solidifying phenomena.

In the meditation practice of following the breath, it’s crucial to look closely to see if one is following the breath or maintaining a fabricated idea of how one should be following the breath. Even to say “follows the breath” implies that there is something following something else. Breath simply occurs. The awareness of the breath and the breath itself are not separate; they are simultaneous. The only way that this simultaneity can be realized is when one suspends conceptualizing the experience. The dissolution of conceptuality can begin through the patient, methodical work of shamatha. This is the essential basis for the second stage, vipashyana, where one discovers the unimpeded quality of mind.

It is the same with artistic training. When one sits down to draw, there is usually an ornate stage-set of personal history in place. This history may include memories of failure or of having been demeaned; or memories of having been successful, well regarded or clever. In either case, the ensuing activity of drawing gets mixed up with a conceptualized personal drama of corroborating prior failure or success. Whichever way it goes, the memories and their conceptual elaborations will obscure the direct experience of seeing the object being drawn, appreciation of the tool being used and reverence for the tremendous magic and mystery of the being doing the drawing.

These two stages of training—whether in art or meditation—are not separate entities. In fruition they are joined. For most of us, though, these stages are experienced alternately as needed. Wildness is tamed by methodical repetition; complacency is unseated by insight — insight into the potential within all situations to penetrate the habitual mind. Mind training, especially for artists, ultimately moves beyond the habitual to engage the mind's boundless energy, its wilderness nature, in all its brilliance and messy complexity. Play pervades it all.

¹ This differentiation of shamatha and vipashyana is often encountered in Tibetan Buddhism. The Theravadin traditions that developed in Southeast Asia and the Zen traditions of China and Japan generally do not make this distinction.

² There is also a surprising effect that arises out of our looking at each other as directly as this exercise demands: people are almost universally startled by each other’s radiance and beauty. This insight arises independently of the outcome of the drawings themselves.