The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse
We often think that creating art will help us find peace, its so taken for granted its laughable. We are sent messages that if you create art, it will be a salve for your worry, or assist you in finding calm.
What if we considered a different point of view: That it is imperative to move towards peace before we attempt our art. If we are full with the feelings of warmth, stability, comfort and abundant energy, will we not be able to explore our art more fully? Will we not have a larger sphere from which to draw? If we moved towards our creativity from a place of peace do we then hav the strength to explore the vicissitudes that would elude us when we rely on the art to bring us peace?
“If you can regulate emotion and desire, you will succeed in your endeavors. If you have inner peace, you will be able to deal with the unexpected. If you are at peace with yourself, the five viscera (heart, liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys) will be healthy, your thoughts will be clear, your tendons will be strong, and your senses will be keen. When the body is strong and the spirit is clear, you will not be frustrated by obstacles. Your actions will be neither obsessive or inadequate, and you will not feel constricted in a small room or disoriented in a wide-open space.”
Eva Wong - Being Taoist.
One of the great themes of Taoism is the “free and easy wandering”, The mythos of Taoism is filled with images of the aloof sages who stare at a babbling books for days at a time, sleeping old men who turn into butterflies, butchers who need not sharpen their knives, and rogues who react to distress by laughing uncontrollably. There are cautions against extreme happiness as well as extreme anger, anything extreme seems to be off limits to a healthy life. The emphasis on simplicity of mind spirit and material is almost always valued in these writings.
I start this newsletter with these words because I want you to ask yourself how you perpetuate complications in your life?
What processes can be simple, free and easy, if you let them?
Why is peace so elusive? so impermanent?
Sometimes peace is about releasing our grip and allowing calm to settle in.
I see the fear of this process in many people. We think, “if I truly let go, I will freak out”. And so we don’t actually let things be simple not because we fear peace, but because we don’t trust the bridge will lead us there. Imagine a meadow filled with oak trees, but you have to walk upon a rickety, rotten bridge that swings over a chasm. The bridge is the essence, the soul of anxiety… it wants you to believe that if you slow down, relax, then you will be attacked from behind, or fall through the slats, so we tighten, grip and cleave to our habits, we complicate things out of a desperate hope to outrun doubt, fear and panic and we never actually make it across that bridge to the meadow.
And like the philosophical rope the masquerades as a snake in low light, sometimes the bridge can actually be trustworthy and if its not trustworthy, we have to work to make it so. If we do rebuild the bridge, a nail at a time, we will not only study its structure, know its construction, and bit by bit, begin to trust its wayfaring properties to deliver us to a state from which our nervous systems understand as safe.
I hear all the time the warnings of “playing it safe” in the art life. Art often engages with the peripheries and vagueries of life and the edges of weirdness. If an organism is unbalanced, raw or delicate, how can we engage with these thematics in our work without focus and clarity? So I propose you work on your bridge to the calm and centered meadow within yourself, so that you can move into the wild territories that you envision creating.
“I sleep in the clouds where the sun doesn’t reach
beside a high cliff and mountain stream
I dream on my bed until the moon fills the window
the porridge is done when the smoke clears
a million reasons vanish without being driven off
our single perfect nature shines by itself
as clear as a cloudless sky it never changes
the sea meanwhile is now a mulberry grove”
-Stonehouse, The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse
For my whole life I was trained to wake up early instantaneously, sharp as if a looney tune dropped an Acme bomb into my bed. I was taught virtuous are the early risen, for they are more productive and therefore better people. This was fine in up until my teens, but in my twenties, when I worked jobs I hated, it became a cortisol drenched curse. I suffered from anxiety and depression, I worked long hours because thats when you do in your twenties, you build something, and I woke up early, even on weekends, and if I had nothing to do, I would invent something in the interest of supporting this taken for granted value.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with waking up early, I still do, but I’ve modified my orientation to the mornings. As I mentioned cortisol, the stress hormones is highest upon first waking. For so long I unknowingly pushed against and through the cortisol rush and all the other hormonal changes that happen in the early hours of the day.
If you push against these forces, rather than meld with them, you set yourself up for an eventual fracture. I’ve been through many of these fractures, because I wasn’t riding the waves of what the mornings meant. I think a lot of us are subject to this awful wager, starting out the day on other’s terms instead of letting the mornings be a time where we shut up and listen to our nature. Stonehouse’s poem refers to a “single nature (that) shines by itself. What kind of conditions do you need to at least see if he is right?
Rather than exacerbate the effects of stress and tension, could you try to let the mornings be free and easy? I’ve started a simple practice to play with this… Upon awakening, I notice the programmed jolt that I suddenly awaken to find, I realize that this is reflexive and what it does to my heart rate, my anxiety levels, my literal perception of the world, and instead of giving way to it, I casually let myself drift back to sleep for a time. Some people have no problem with this, but for me it was monumental, it allows me to enter into waking life with more ease and hopefully more in touch with peace and calm so I can utilize my creative force more easily. I like this change in practice because its simple, easy and also explores the peripheries of my belief system and what its done to my stress levels and creativity over time. Wonderful changes often come from small shifts in perception, and that’s mostly what art represents, shifts in perception. I love epiphanies, but the road to them is built on tiny almost imperceptible changes that aggregate over time, through increased awareness and curiosity to our own ecosystem.
I ask you dear one, what do you need to access calm or peace, before you engage in creativity? What might get you in touch with your sense of a healthy, but poised resting state? And, if you can effect a change towards calm, how will it effect your psyche, mood and your engagement with your creative processes?