To start, something from Zen:
The student and his teacher are preparing to paint.
"What, Master, is the most difficult part of painting?" says the student.
"The part of the paper where nothing is painted is the the most difficult," says the teacher.
And so it goes. In life, we often speak of getting into a "rhythm" or finding our "zone." We must be careful, though, as ambling along the worn paths of the familiar sometimes prevents us from crossing the threshold into the wide-open space of the unknown, the part of the paper where nothing is painted. It is here where life is truly created, where the forces of our mind converge and reveal that from which we are still trying to break free. To do that, we must be willing to sit still amidst the swarm of expectations, memories, judgments, and myriad other detritus that obscures our innate creativity.
A friend tells me that twenty years ago he took a painting class where all you did was touch your brush to the paper and wait for it to reveal which direction to move. It was a silent and slow process; one might spend an hour and only paint a few inches. What was created, however, somehow felt more right than a dozen other pictures that might have been aesthetically pleasing but emotionally dormant. "I found one of those paintings recently," he said. "I picked up a brush and put it on the point where I'd stopped. It was like I'd never left."
I wonder if it's something like this that brings me back to writing — to creating — now. At some point I, like all of us, felt the whisper of a proper direction in my ear, the influence of some "still, small voice of knowing" beyond the intellect or ego-mind. It was what made me write plays as a boy; what heightened my sensitivities to space, color, nuance, and beauty; what helped me realize that the raging river below the surface of so many lives was far more interesting than most of what was being discussed around the dinner table. It brought me to read, and be moved to tears by words, to long to create one thing — just one, please! — that might impact the world as a blossoming rose might a child. It was the thing that makes us feel alive, vibrant, and somehow, more real. It is what Adyahshanti calls "Life with a capital L."
Whether we follow from first touch and stay the course, or drop and return to it again and again over our lives, once we know that path we can no longer claim ignorance. We may try to avoid it, shun it, even curse it, but our true purpose is to align with it, to express ourselves through it, to share with those to be found along it. If we don't, we will feel the ache as long as we live; but, ironically, if we do, we might just face a deeper struggle. To be what we fully must be, we have to face the empty paper. Life may intend for us to be there, but it certainly isn't going to let us get away without some work.
And so here I am, writing. Again. I have stopped and started so many times I cannot bear to count. I have tried to cast myself as the many other things I intended to be: a doctor, a world-traveler, a painter, a yogi, a monk, a tea master, a teacher, a lover, a man fully at peace. I succeeded, by society's standards, in some of those things; I never even tried others. As I age, I may add to and/or subtract from the list, trying on various hats and outfits and voices. But what I've come to understand over the last year is that I had lost track of — or maybe never even really found — the small line at the tip of my brush. My line. My "life with a capital L."
Now I am here to do that. It was my friend, and many others, who inspired me to dig out that old painting from long ago (metaphorically speaking), to dust off the brush and dip it in the black ink. It was sorrow and tears and grief that pushed me to the edge, the place where I realized that if I did not intend to continue the journey in the only direction I knew was right, then I may as well not continue at all.
My paper is indeed empty, a vast field of white stretched out before me like a frozen tundra. I'm nervous. I'm worried. I'm afraid. What if there is nothing to say? What if the old things follow me, refusing to let go? What if I end up impoverished, heartbroken, downtrodden? But even still under the influence of that whom I used to be, I also feel vibrant and alive, awake to my senses and my purpose as never before. Do I know the absolute right direction? Or how I will survive the pitfalls of a genuine creative life? Or where this is all leading me?
No. No. No.
What I do know, however, is that the place I have been is too dark, too small, and too lonely for me now. I must leave. I will leave. And I will hope that I do not miss it so much that I go crawling back. As G.K. Chesterson wrote, "There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect." This is the road I plan to take, the path I plan to paint. I won't make any promises about being entertaining, or insightful, or popular, or award-winning. What I will do, however, is show up as best as I can, as often as I can. I will share with you what I see, and how I see it. That is my promise, with which I raise a small toast, from heart to mouth, and bring toward my lips the warm scent of the first cup...
Perhaps I will see you along the way?