Thursday, July 03, 2014

Instructions for the Artist ~ No 8 ~ Putting Your Whole Attention Into The Work

The eighth in a series of articles based on Dogen's Instructions for the Tenzo, exploring how it might be applied to artistic practice and work in general.

'Put your whole attention into the work, 
seeing just what the situation calls for.'

I don't know about you, but my mind does wander off, losing focus and deliberative purpose. In the middle of a conversation with a friend my attention might be drawn away by something happening on the periphery of my awareness, a plane flying over or a phone ringing. My friend might be telling me a really interesting tale about what happened to them and yet I find myself wondering what led them to choose that T shirt or make judgements about them based on the unkempt nature of their shoes. Failing this then my mind will return to further ruminate upon some minor upset earlier in the day or in my life. In short, my attention wanders.

Our mind becomes drunk on experiences. In its inebriated state, it has two major things it leans upon for support; to look backwards, to remember, to try to reconfigure aspects of our past experience; or to look forward, to envision, to preconfigure or fix, in our minds at least, what the future will be like. This may not be entirely without practicality or usefulness. We do need to make sense of what has past. It could help us behave better if we reflected on and learnt from our previous experience, and be carried forward to influence future behaviour. This might make us better at handling whatever comes our way. If only all this were true.

The majority of our mental activity is useless activity, mostly trivial concerns, sometimes positively unhelpful, particularly if we are trying to improve the nature of our interactions, to be kinder, more beneficial or ethical. Our mental processes are dominated by selfish emotional impulses which proliferate along a rambling associative line of thought. Anxious, paranoid, neurotic, envious, vengeful, mostly selfish, or self-deluded thoughts, with poor self esteem running through it like an underground stream through rock. Against these thoughts our better nature struggles, to contain, to neutralise or overcome them.  So bringing our whole attention to our work will be of no small order.

Whether you're working or not, it's good to be able to concentrate on what you are presently doing. A good cook has to think ahead, to when things need to be cooked by. This shouldn't be confused with multi-tasking. It's about maintaining a broad awareness of ones purpose in the present moment, what you are trying to achieve, how you are to achieve it and when you want it achieved by. Remaining aware of the passage of time, recalling our past experience of cooking the recipe, what went well, what would improve it,what proved to be a mistake. In other words 'seeing just what the situation calls for'.

'Putting your whole attention into the work', might be seen as keeping ones attention in the present moment. If you've ever tried consciously to do this you'll know it requires an impossible level of rigid mental discipline. We intuit that being in the present moment ought to be possible, but find it is has a much more slippery fluid feel than that. It's something that cannot be taught. We come into alignment with the present moment through creating the conditions from which we might experience it. We train ourselves in meditation to calm our distracted mental state, eventually being able to bring this more and more tangibly into everyday life.

In everyday life, you have to remain mindful of what your overall purpose is. This includes everything that feeds into the present moment, what preceded it and what is yet to come. Being aware of ones past and current mental, emotional and physical state, what our habitual responses and reactive tendencies to those are, and where these might lead if we do or don't focus upon them. Attentiveness to the needs and state of the people you're working with, is also called for. Holding all these within a broad spectrum of awareness, without becoming hooked on them, and staying focused on the demands of the immediate task before us. You wont be able to stay in the present moment simply by design or desire, but by paying attention to what pulls your attention away from it. What or where is this present moment anyway? It can seem like a thinly sliced piece of ham, invisibly sandwiched between the bread of the past and future. The present moment wont be found if we see it as a destination, but if we become one with the nature of the journey, alive to when life is being fully lived.

Whilst working on an artwork, I travel back and forth from the past, to the present and the future of what I'm doing. I find if I think too much about a pieces future development I become tense and more anxious. The experience in the present moment is of confusion, creative direction becomes frozen, frigid even, as it is mired in the quicksand of uncertainty. If future thinking dominates, this usually indicates my ego, rather than the work itself, is now leading the creative process. Issues of self identity and reputation begin to infuse thoughts; the usual I'm a good artist/bad artist stuff; will this piece be rubbish or the most wonderful, ground breaking thing I've ever done?  Dwelling in the present, in the uncertain place that is the future inevitably does frighten you.

The past, is an imaginary place constructed around facts. All history has this illusory stability and coherence that we embroider around it. Everything we've ever experienced acquiring a sepia toned homogeneity, created by our endless remembering of it. To remember the past is to reconstruct it, to redesign and update it. Our desire in the present moment is to turn the past into a prediction of the future. Creatively, thinking of the past, has for me a depressive air,it smells of death and decay. It usually means I've become stuck in a habit, a comfortingly familiar idea or way of working.  Whatever we had in the past, has by virtue of time passing, been lost.  Past glories, past times, past endeavours, all tell you you have past it, whatever 'it' is. My artwork and creative process then becomes overly self-identified, a self designating rather than a liberating thing. This is what I am, this is what I do, this how I do it. Dwelling in the present, in the certain place that is the past inevitably does bore you.

I try to counter this past/future dichotomy, by trying to stay with whatever stage in the creative process I'm currently in. Actively discouraging myself from worrying about what I've done or where I'm going with it, and staying with what I'm doing. Sol Le Witt said  'If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he compromises the result and repeats past results'  So there is artistic benefit in sticking with the zeitgeist of the present creative moment.  My mind still gets drawn back into past ideas or distracted by future prognostications. Yet similar to meditation, you simply bring your mind back to the focus of the artistic practice, which is right in front of you. Through listening attentively to what you are currently doing, you do unconsciously prepare the ground for whatever is to come next. You cultivate calmly abiding with whatever you are presently doing, give it your whole and undivided attention, and not drift off into past or future concerns. If I'm able to stay with whatever is happening right in front of me, then when a particular idea has been followed through and completed, whatever is to come next generally emerges quite clearly into my mind. It seems blatantly obvious to state, but the future always arises out of the present moment.

It's similar to tomorrows weather, we all read or hear the forecasts, but until you wake up to find it's gloriously sunny you won't decide to take that long walk along the riverbank, or to visit the seaside. You could spend time the night before worrying about the uncertainties of the English weather, and what you may or may not be able to do the next day if you wish. Until the conditions of the present moment arrive you don't really know what you actually will do. Its in the nature of the present moment to trigger the unexpected, to allow exciting things to arise. We all carry with us excess mental and emotional baggage, that encumbers our ability to give what we are doing right now our full attention. Once we are aware of what we bring to the present moment then we are more able to 'see what the situation calls for'.  Dwelling in the present does inevitably enliven you. For the present moment is the active energised place where we are simply being alive.

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