Zen training in the Mountains and Rivers Order includes taking up creative expression—both the traditional Zen arts as well as contemporary arts—to deeply study the self through using our inherent human creativity.
Hojin Sensei spoke in March after her recent art practice retreat, “Face to Face,” offering these words: This exquisite magical display we call our body, our self. What is it? Of course ‘face’ does not always mean the physical part of the body. In another way it’s the surface of the mind’s mirror which is also being attended to—seeing our bodies, the directness with our embodiment, as a sacred awakened activity.
The “Face to Face” retreat focused on portraits: self portraits, other portraits, no-looking portraits, and the expression of the many nuanced experiences of working directly and intimately with self and other. Retreat participants shared some reflections on this day of art practice:
How would you describe this retreat experience to someone else?
We slowed down to look closely, and interwove the Zen principles of being present, and how we were dealing with the materials. Looking at yourself and having a tactile experience with the materials, the imagery that was produced was, it was not a product-oriented experience. Hojin kept asking us to slow down, it’s hard to not look when drawing really slowly!
Hojin Sensei made it so easy to suspend the kind of judgements that get in the way of creative expression and to trust the moment. One exercise was taking in our own image in a mirror, without judgement, then turning away and drawing our impressions. Another was pairing up look at another’s face and not looking at the page but just drawing while looking, keeping someone in very intimate focus.
I don’t do art for the gallery scene, that’s not my motivation, I don’t find satisfaction when that is the intention. I want to connect my spiritual self with my artist self.
What surprised you about the retreat?
I was surprised how in depth it went, how actually…it was a little uncomfortable. You don’t usually go up to a stranger and look into them and try to feel them the way you might feel yourself. Exploring the contours of someone else’s face, sort of like you were invading their privacy, even though we gave each other permission to do this.
When you look into someone else’s face, with the process of just seeing, you open an opportunity to see something new or something unfound. In some cases you might capture an essence of that person that might surprise you, that might surprise them. Exploring aspects that they might not even be aware of, and vice versa; they were exploring me in ways that I didn’t necessarily have access to.
Being in this space together, everyone shared the experience of feeling vulnerable, an unspoken agreement to recognize that fact and to share that fact—I am constantly surprised at how much opens up when I’m willing to step into that, and at how much I enjoyed it because of that. Ideas about what I want and what I actually find—I want to ge good and get praise—but when I’m actually doing it that drops away.
It’s a powerful thing to be present in meditation with people you then extended your time with in the workshop. I was appreciative of that.
After each exercise we’d put our papers on the wall, and the one that was most mysterious and valuable to me was one that didn’t even look like a face, not at all, maybe more like shadows on the moon. It didn’t have any resemblance to the face I’d been looking at for a half hour, but this experience was really joyful because I had spent the time slowly and delicately exploring my human subject, without trying to make my marks look like a face.
Was there a point where you came up against something you had to work through? How did you do that?
Trying to shed my own habits so I could engage in what I was being asked to do, that was hard at first. To put myself in a place of being the student, and being led. It was hard for me to shift my head into being a student.
I felt very uncertain about presenting my raw, unedited face. Not easy. What is it we think we’re protecting exactly? The logic is I’m protecting other people from the experience of looking at my raw, unedited face, but maybe more about fear of abandonment, something primal.
At the end of the program we had 20 minutes to come up with a performance with a small group, to act out the scribbling we had on the paper, so I was doing some kind of dance. That was a real challenge: trusting that moment as well, trusting the moment and seeing that others were facing that too, knowing we all have our issues around spontaneity, looking silly, judging ourselves, all those things are on the surface. Keep breathing and go to it! Trust that what will come forth is something good.
The performance part, it was horrible. I struggled with that. I noticed myself not wanting to do that, and then it was actually quite enjoyable. One of the things I wanted was to affirm people; they’d come up with an idea and I’d just want to say yes, to hear them and just say yes. It doesn’t really matter what it looks like, it becomes all about saying yes, that’s awesome!
What was joyful about experiencing this retreat?
I think the intimacy, being fact to face and drawn by someone, just staring at someone eye to eye, realized how much I have missed. All sorts of stuff comes up. In that moment my fear was the greatest and my anxiety the highest; the intimacy was very intense, and I wanted to do it, I wanted to face that.
Art practice opens up how I think about stuff thats on the edge that I don’t normally confront. But there it is, and you sit with it. Learning to be with myself in that moment, and to trust that.
The joy was sharing it with other people. If I picture doing that by myself it would be good, but seeing everyone’s creative aspect and hearing about others, their thought processes and vulnerability, it seemed to bring the whole thing to life.
Slowing down, paying attention to every little bit of the line, physically deep looking at self, it opened up my thinking, or my ability to not think so much.
I’ve noticed this desire to want to let go of end product and engage in the process, this has been very much true with my practice. At one point we had a ball point pen and we were letting their form evolve and emerge out of this rapid line, like wrapping up a ball of yarn. I thought it was very unusual, really something unique, because you’re almost disconnecting with the process—everything is flowing and fast—and this gestural approach really captured some remarkable kind of essence or likeness. For me that was a really exciting discovery.
This face, there is a beauty. I have a friend who has been drawing my face and said there are contours that are very beautiful. It just doesn’t meet expectations.