Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Juicy Anxiety

Collages by Cathy Riddle at Shambhala Art Part II, February 10, 2013
This last weekend I taught, for the very first time, the full curriculum of Shambhala Art Parts I+II. I was trained in LA over a year ago to teach this, and Part III. I attended a retreat this January, and that finally made me feel ready to teach a whole weekend. In the meantime, I had presented parts of it at a week-long Arts retreat with Lisa Stanley and done a talk and exercise in Paris in June of 2012.

I was, needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, nervous as fuck. Super anxious. I mean, really.
I teach full-time. I teach in all sorts of circumstances with strangers. And yet. Not having taught the material yet in public means, for me, that it isn't "mine" yet. A lot of the teachings in Shambhala Art overlap with Miksang and the way I teach Contemplative Writing (because the core text, True Perception, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is the same). But the terms are different, the exercises different. Those are what didn't feel mine yet.

My familiar ground quickly became my students' anxieties. Yes. Not just mine, but theirs.

I don't mean that in any kind of sadistic way ("Oh yay! They are suffering! That's good! I can work with that!") but rather that this particular sweet set of five really opened up quickly and let it be known that they, too, were nervous. Nervous about doing exercises they don't know. Nervous about their bodies and about speech, introducing themselves, moving spontaneously in front of one another. Drawing. Speaking spontaneous poetry. Trusting one another as, in pairs, a sighted person led a blindfolded person around. A combination of every leadership retreat meets art retreat - at least one exercise triggered or intimidated everyone, and most, including myself, found nearly every exercise challenging.

And yet, strangely compelling.
I say strangely because normally we don't go towards anxiety. It sucks. Why go there? The students, granted, 4/5 knew me as a teacher, but still - the students trusted me. They quickly trusted each other and even started to trust themselves. Immediately we could all see what that trust brought forth - moments of total clarity, pure inspiration, in the middle of complete and consuming anxiety or distraction.

Inter cut. Inter twined. Inter dependent. While it is so tempting to say, to think, to look for messages that reiterate that inspiration and anxiety are, and should be, completely separate states, they aren't.
No way.
Let's face it.
I know very few people for whom even their most practiced artistic endeavor does not cause them at least momentary panic attacks each time they approach it. Not to mention "regular life non-art endeavors," though Trungpa would categorize everything we do as art. It happens. Shit happens.

And it turns out, no matter how many times we hear it we can't seem to hear it enough, lotuses grow out of mud. Compost is rotted vegetable matter that brings out better blooms. Manure is fertilizer for hearty crops. Going into the anxiety, with acknowledgement, gentleness and even some playfulness, is the only way. No sidetracking, no distraction will access the juice just waiting to be squeezed out of resistance.

Though I have quite the internal dictator, or perhaps because I have quite the internal dictator, I find it very important to distinguish here - sometimes we do need a break. A real honest breather. Some space. A walk in the woods away from the overdue article. A crying festival with a friend to process what's underneath not wanting to pick up the pen. Playing with another media, one with less tension associated with it, until you can relax enough to rediscover inspiration. I am not implying that dogged pursual is the way, all the way, 100% of the time.

But when we take space to rediscover, access what Trungpa calls Square One, and First Thought, we need to be honest about whether we are trying to escape or getting some space. Because anxiety knows. It is clever. And if we run away, it will hunt us down. If we are simply getting space, we discover that even in the seemingly solid intensity of anxiety, there is breathing room. Anxiety, nervousness, intensity - all of these and more grow in the darkness, in being ignored or avoided. Not the kind of growth that inspires - the kind of growth that chokes.

Don't take my word for it. Please. Turn on your bullshit detector and go out and test out what I am saying. Next time, instead of doing the same thing you always do (and we all have deeply ingrained habits around anxiety, especially in "making art"), try something new. Engage in a dialogue with your anxiety. Write down what you are really feeling. Pick up a brush and paint an entire black page before returning to your delicate watercolor. Let juicy anxiety and inspirational intensity dance with each other. Find the soft spot of fear, sadness, anger underneath and let it show you what it has to say.

I guarantee it won't be what you expect. It will be fresh. Real. Honest.
The best inspiration we can ever ask for.


  1. *hugs* This was what I needed to hear, right now, in this moment. Thank you, as always.

  2. Yes! I love this and agree with it. Also, do you think I would get anything out of True Perception, or is it a) more advanced than I am in my meditative practice or b)focused on topics (like Miksang) that wouldn't be so relevant to me?