Work Life, Zen Life

A wise master once said, “Set up your life so you can sit well”. This means, for a student of Zen, (and I think everyone), your meditation practice and mindfulness practice should be of primary importance in your life. This essential part of a daily routine sets the tone for your day, and ultimately for your life. Living a life with no undue stress, no excessive needs or expenditures, and creating a life where, yes, you stand on your own two feet, but you don’t make extraneous things important. 

Kurt Rinzai-Ji

Photo above taken at Rinzai-Ji Zen Center in Los Angeles

Unfortunately, beyond basic needs of survival (which are getting harder and harder to acquire or maintain these days) the blind pursuit of happiness through entertainment or the desire for material gain without question or consideration is of highest importance. We are now creatures constantly distracted and bombarded with advertising, marketing and the proposition of living a better life through the acquisition of more and better things and experiences. We have lost the desire to question our existence and find out if there is a way to more fully feel and experience our lives without the need for material gain or entertainment. Seeking out the nature of one’s existence in this life is, I believe, of primary importance in life.

Otherwise, (examining the state of our existence today), it is hard to separate ourselves from animals. Actually it is easy to see that animals are far more advanced than humans in the way they live. Because their minds have not evolved to look beyond a basic means of survival, animals live within their means, don’t suffer needlessly and don’t overuse resources. Our brains as humans have evolved so far beyond animals but it is obvious that we don’t know how to use our brains to anywhere near their full capacity. We still exist on a very base level of survival, we just have found a way to make life more “comfortable”. But this comfort is a delusion that leads us to complacency instead of actually allowing us to create large amounts of time to discover our true nature. How far do we have yet to evolve to end suffering, hunger, poverty, inequality? It would seem that we may never actually realize our true potential before we destroy our planet. 

Yes, everyone wants to be happy, but are we so sure what that even means? Does the majority of us understand how true happiness feels? I would say likely not. That may sound judgmental and opinionated but I really think there is truth to this statement because I think we have the potential as human beings to feel way beyond what we even understand happiness can be. And this happiness, I feel, comes from a practice of mindfulness and meditation that should really be started at a young age. We should teach this in schools as a primary part of our education. Then we should begin to teach math, reading, writing etc. 

So how does this contemplative practice relate to a career in the arts? That's what I’m here to discuss today.

It’s very important to understand that a sustainable career in the arts is open to anyone, even those with little talent or experience, but very few will be able to make it work and make enough money to call themselves professional. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of talented people out there who are very worthy of making a career out of their art. It’s that the majority of people who want to make art are not usually going to want to do the ugly stuff like marketing, networking, sitting at the computer or talking on the phone for hours. These are the base level activities that most artists will have to engage in that will allow them to chop out a living from their art. Yes, there are prodigies, rock star artists, extremely ambitious artists hungry to be the best in the world. There are artists who find themselves in Ivy League MBA programs through their exceptional talent or some through their privilege. But these often type-a hyper-driven people who are willing to do anything to be successful are few and far between. And many are not necessarily even more talented than unknown artists, they are simply willing to go the extra million miles to get where they need to be to sustain their career. Being a professional artist, on any level, is far too often just a fight for survival. 

With that being said, this drive to win, this will to succeed does not generally provide a stable mental foundation for a calm and stress free life. Of course not everyone wants a contemplative mindful  life. Often it is quite the opposite. Over and over again we hear about the drug addiction, the hedonism, the excess, the sexual abuse, and the extreme stress and angst of those that are driven so hard to succeed and are willing to fight to the death to keep their success. All of these conditions of a “successful” life are external. To live a contemplative life would suggest to not put importance on external circumstances but to always look inward, questioning the nature of our existence, and realizing our true nature. This is where evolution will advance within the human race to a place of peace, freedom, kindness, generosity and equality. Success driven lives, material wealth, and status are almost always ego driven activities that create more distance from awareness and higher states of consciousness. 

The search inward for truth by an individual is far too often considered undesirable to most religious organizations (ironically), corporations and political bodies. After all, if one is driven to understand the nature of one’s existence and to not just accept what is being sold to them, they cannot be marketed to because the things they are being sold may no longer be deemed of interest or true to their values. After one has discovered their true nature or even understood intellectually the structure of existence they may start to question the bodies of power more closely. We realize that so many of these “powerful” entities actually do not have our best interest in mind, they only have their best interest in mind and have no desire to elevate humankind but only to use people to their own ends. 

Getting to the Point 

That being said, the point is that a contemplative practice and an artistic practice go hand-in-hand. One serves the other. A spiritual life is a creative life. As a person I am always trying to refine myself, become more confident, find better ways to do things that serve more people in a positive way. As an artist I do the same. Through a daily practice I am refining my technique, getting deeper into a state of samadhi while working, working to create intuitively and freely without the need for negative mental states or even without the need of thinking. Yes, thinking always continues, it will never stop.

But by not placing importance on the thoughts and letting them come and go without attaching to them allows me to open up to receive ideas and to execute them directly and confidently without too much struggle or conflict.

My desire is to make my art as intuitive and clearly stated as possible  so a connection can be made with the one who will experience the work. It is often hard to know why one connects with a work of art deeply. Sometimes there is brilliant technical facility seen in a work, or maybe the idea is new and unique. Those are obvious ways a piece of art can connect. But there are deeper ways to connect that can only be felt or intuited and this is where my effort lies. The work should allow the one who is experiencing it to connect to it deeply and open up the viewer to have a moment of transcendence or and experience of higher consciousness. For me, Jackson Pollack and Agnes Martin (among a few others), have created work that can take me to an elevated state of consciousness where I disappear into the work and have a moment of samadhi. If the artist is in a meditative state while creating the work, that energy is transferred directly to the work, and the work transmits that energy to the viewer. It’s a beautiful thing when this happens and this is a primary reason I practice art. It allows me to connect on a level that is difficult for me to achieve though more common methods of interaction. I feel extremely lucky to be able to have this practice and to make art that I feel has the ability to connect to others in a way that they don’t normally experience.

The One Who Experiences Art

Of course the one experiencing the work has to arrive at the piece with an element of seriousness or wonder. As well, enough time must be spent viewing the work in stillness and quiet before the mind can settle down to experience the work on a deeper level. When seeing a piece of art for the first time, if that work is compelling, it is easy to ask questions in one’s mind out of curiosity.

  • How was this piece made?
  • What is the artist trying to say or express with this work?
  • What are the materials of the piece?
  • How long did it take to make the work?
  • When and where was it made?
These are all great questions. Asking them allows the one who experiences the work to spend more time engaging with the work. But at a certain point the mind must become quiet and the questions must cease so that the work can be felt and experienced beyond the thinking mind. A deeper intuition and feeling can then be realized in the same manner as a moment of stillness in meditation.



Work Life, Zen Life