When Fuego first erupted, I was not in Guatemala, I was in New York for a Zen meditation retreat that I take part in a couple of times a year. The retreat had not even started when I received a call from my wife Rache letting me know that there was a massive eruption and she wasn't sure what had happened at first. She sent me photos of black hail that covered the surrounding area; the car, the house, the roads, everything was blanketed in black soot. I asked her if I should come back and she said it was ok. I had mixed feelings about that and in retrospect I think I should have gone back immediately. But it seemed as though things had cooled down enough for me to stay on in NY. We used to watch Fuego from our rooftop, the glowing orange lava streaming down the side of the volcano facing us. We had felt tremors and small earthquakes caused by the volcano several times and were kind of used to it. But this time was different. I asked Rache to collect the ash that covered the driveway as I had successfully experimented with using it as a medium and decided this would be a great project to start on when I got back and maybe I could help the pueblos in some way.
Things were quiet from Guatemala the rest of the day so I decided to stay on and start the retreat that commenced that evening. Unbeknownst to me, Fuego once again erupted and this was when the real devastation occurred. Fortunately Antigua, our home, was far enough away from the eruptions that there was no real damage to that area. But the pueblos were covered in ash and hot lava and many died.
While Guatemala was burning literally, I was burning away delusions figuratively, in my mind, by sitting in countless hours of meditation for a week. These silent retreats, called Sesshin, are intense experiences that truly cannot be explained. Dealing with the mind directly for a week straight with very little extraneous activity is something we rarely get to do. All Sesshins have an epic feel to them. Often the student at the retreat will sink to the lowest lows and soar to the highest highs. But a seasoned practitioner knows that these are just mental activities and all thoughts are essentially just that; thoughts. We learn to observe these thoughts and not attach importance to them, and over time this trickles out into our lives and help guide us through life as we become more wise. Its a truly amazing practice and the lifeblood of Zen Buddhism.
Finally the Sesshin ended and that morning I called my family and they explained what had happened. Although I was on a high from the Sesshin, I also felt upset and was questioning why I stayed on to do Sesshin under these circumstances instead of rushing back home to be with my family. All I can say is the practice continues!
I relate these conflicting feelings I had to my art making practice. Everyday I’m in the studio, the arena if you will, facing these conflicting emotions. Is the work that I’m doing today good? Am I just wasting my time on a new series or will it be some of the best work I have done? Fortunately the years of Zen practice have given me a foothold to stay in the moment, be fully aware while I am working, give space to all the thoughts and emotions that arise, and to trust the process. I know that there will be good work and there will be bad work. It used to be that if the work was not going well, my life would not be going well and I was a nightmare to be around. But now I have reconciled through a unrelenting mindful practice placing the importance on awareness of the work and my surroundings each moment and staying vigilant within that practice instead of letting my mind take me to places that do not serve me at all.
Because of this dedication to this single minded practice in the studio, I can now work freely with intention, focus and clarity that were not always present. The mental roller coaster still runs free, I have just learned to detach from it and not place importance on that activity. I can leave the studio at the end of the day content and show up for my family and friends in a positive light. Everyone wins.
This is the wisdom path.