Posts Tagged ‘Lao Tzu’

The Illustration Friday word of the week is water.

A shiny black enamel box of flat, dry paint and a cheap brush was my first introduction to watercolors. With an old jelly jar full of water and some equally cheap paper, I was probably painting horses. Wasn’t every young girl? My sister, the only one I had at that point (much later, another one came along) was in bed with chicken pox, or maybe tonsilitis. I looked at my very purple rinse water in that jelly jar and thought, just for a joke, I’d give it to her and tell her it was Welch’s grape juice. To my horror, I discovered later that she’d drunk the whole thing. I didn’t tell her until years later. I know so much more about Health & Safety relative to Art Materials now, and I do hope that there is forgiveness for that crime wherever artists go when they die…

Time lessens guilt and self-recrimination, and so I renewed my relationship with watercolors in high school. My twelfth grade art teacher was a short, energetic, balding man with a bushy mustache. Mr. Crocker put us through lots of interesting and creative mind-expanding exercises. We transferred magazine photographs with lighter fluid (probably illegal now) and turned them into collages, we drew portraits on paper and crumpled them up with staining inks to look vintage, we drew each other without once looking at the paper…and we painted trees outside on the quad with tiny watercolor palettes and cups of water. Watercolor and I didn’t hit it off. I was so bad, and my friend Kirk was so  good, just naturally. I just couldn’t get the concept of “put the paint down and leave it alone.” I fussed and scrubbed, trying to make it look good, and it always dried looking like mud. Alas. Fortunately for my artistic self-esteem, most of my classmates also sucked at watercolor. And I was much better, I told myself, at other mediums.

Several years later watercolor made another appearance. I was on my honeymoon, complete with newly acquired, long-haired husband and vintage VW bus, cruising the first leg of our weeks-long trip up the coast of California to Canada. We had stopped at a garage for river-rafting inner tubes, and a hitchhiking hippie wanted to know if we’d take him along to Canada. My new husband immediately said yes. I should have immediately put my thumb out for the opposite direction on that freeway, but it took me seven long years and much more of the same difference of opinion about privacy to disengage. But I did buy my very first set of professional watercolors in an art supply store on that ‘honeymoon.’ A big splurge. I don’t actually remember using them, but I must have because a tiny tube of Ivory Black is the only one left, pinned to my studio wall, reminding me of that honeymoon and that Monterey, California art supply store.

Fast forward many, many more years to a two-year Energy Healing class. (Yes, still California.) We’re sitting in meditation, asking for a word or a symbol for what our True Work is to be. I am a fully fledged artist by now, with years of fine art and commercial art experience (and sales) under my belt. Though I’m not aware of it, a Mid-Life Crisis is about to descend upon me, and my parents are about to descend into their twilight years. I will spend most of the next two years wrestling with old and infirm parents, state medical forms, doctor’s visits, hospitals and airplane flights. And spending much of the rest of the time in a tiny room, late at night, with a new watercolor palette and a stack of Arizona library books about watercolor. But in that meditating moment in California, I seem to be a relatively secure oil painter, following my artistic nose to success. I don’t see any of that other stuff coming at all.

The mediation turns out to be a wake-up call, though it will take me years to respond fully to the message. The answer to the query, “What is my True Work?” is the no-nonsense reply, “Your success will not come from oil paints,” accompanied by a clear symbol that could only be interpreted to mean watercolor. Mind you, I had periodically dabbled in watercolor over the years, as a break from low-level dissatisfactions with oil paint’s ‘muscular’ feel and snail-slow drying time, and my very favorite artistic heroine was a watercolorist…but I had never seriously considered watercolor as my main medium. It was a shocking, unexpected message. In retrospect, perhaps some part of me was looking for a change: I took that message quite seriously.

When all the dust had settled with my parents, I realized that a watercolor palette (and a library) had been my lifeline to sanity. To be honest, I have looked back quite a few times since then and oil paint still sends out its siren call when the watercolors are being particularly obstinate, or I am reminded that oil painters get much more respect than watercolorists. But in my artistic maturity, I realize that I am, first and foremost, a Colorist…color is my joy, my main focus, my barometer of success or failure. And for a Colorist, there is no better medium than watercolor for clarity, immediacy and the intricate relationships of one pigment mix to another. There is no better medium for depicting light and atmosphere either.

Which brings me back to that friend who had a natural talent for watercolor in my high school art class. I received the sad news that Kirk had died recently. A few emails over the past two years had renewed our friendship, and I knew that he had parlayed his natural talents into a successful graphic design career in the new digital world. He was a proud father, a homeowner and husband, had many friends and an active lifestyle. But Life was beating him up (as it will), and a more creative life was calling him. I reminded him of his natural talent, and my admiration for his innate skill with watercolor. He blessed me with his opinion that I “had far surpassed him now.” It was one of the last things he wrote to me. I wish I could have communicated to him the simple joy, the immediacy, of color and water on paper…despite whatever else is going on in one’s life. Perhaps if he had known, it would have been enough.

On the subject of water, and all things related, I close with this powerful quote by the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tsu,

Man, born tender and yielding,
Stiffens and hardens in death.
All living growth is pliant
Until death makes it rigid.
So those people who have hardened are kin of death.
The people who stay gentle are kin of life. . .
How can a person’s life keep its course
If you will not let it flow?
Those who flow as life flows know
They need no other force:
They feel no wear, they feel no tear,
They need no mending, no repair.


“Running on Water”   (watercolor, pen & ink, colored pencil)

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c. Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is surrender.

There is no getting around it: limitation is misery. Whether it be a dearth of space, time, money, ability, success or love, “not having enough” of the thing we need (or think we need) is akin to that proverbial slow trip through Hell. Most of us would do anything to avoid it.

Alas, (and as spiritual teachers of all persuasions have always written) limitation does have a purpose. Surely Eleanor Roosevelt was referring to limitation when she said, “A woman is like a teabag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” We don’t have to like it… but limitation is, indeed, a great teacher.

Many of us (with the exception of those who are still testosterone-driven and/or caffeine-powered) have begun to suspect that the true name of Life’s game is surrender. This is not the surrender of giving up, losing, passivity, or any other similar mind-set, but Surrender as in an alignment with the greater wisdom, the greater plan of Life. The words of Lao Tzu (previously posted here) describe this definition of “Surrender” quite clearly, translated here by Witter Bynner.

“…When a man is in turmoil, how shall he find peace, save by staying patient till the stream clears? How can a man’s life keep its course if he will not let it flow? Those who flow as life flows, know they need no other force: they feel no wear, they feel no tear, they need no mending, no repair.”

Yet there is this thing about humans and free will: the freedom to choose. We grow and become wise from whatever choices we make, but there is (of course you’ve noticed) a steep price for choosing to go against the flow of Life. Edward Bach, in his classic book, Heal Thyself: An Explanation of the Real Cause and Cure of Disease, wrote convincingly that the root cause of all disease is to be found not on the physical level, as modern medicine would have us believe, but on the level of the spirit. He states unequivocably, that the cause is a conflict between Soul and Mind. (In New Age lingo: a conflict between Head and Heart.) In the words of Lao Tzu: a resistance to Life’s flow.

When I honestly look at my own health and the mirror of my life situation, I see the evidence of resistance to Life’s flow everywhere. That being said… Surrender is not easy. If I ever knew how, I am long out of practice and very rusty. Where did I put that oil can?

“Of It’s Own Weight” (oil on board)

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c. Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is winter.

I don’t often remember dreams. Waking life is so insistent that the moment consciousness returns to that grey-matter cockpit behind my eyes, all the To Do’s and Oh No’s! come flooding back in. The gossamer veil of memory is gone before I can grasp its wispy skirt. I miss remembering my dreams, but comfort myself that they are still happening, working on the psyche as inexorably as rain on stone…

But this morning the phone rang early and, surprisingly, two dreams stuck around… In a large house on a rainy, winter morning, I look out my bedroom window. A wooden ruler lies on the muddy ground, and I make a mental note to retrieve it before rain renders it warped and useless. Running to answer a ringing phone in the dream, I see our roommate taping newly painted and stinky signs to every room’s door—baby-blue trees, Celtic knots and vine-y patterns. Her purposeful, Real Estate Salesperson persona and the impending Open House reminds me that Change hangs ominously in the air: we will have to move soon. In another room, my husband is ironing in his underwear, watching daytime soap operas. “So this is what you’ve been reduced to: a tiny room, ironing and watching daytime soaps?” I say to him. “Well, what can you do?” he replies, with a classic Jewish shrug.

The second dream has the same theme… I have been happily working in the yard for hours. My last task is to plant a field with onion seeds, and although it is late afternoon, the hot sun still hangs high in the sky. Later, while sitting in the middle of the field’s dark soil and newly planted rows, I blink…and the seeds have sprouted. Everywhere, tiny green shoots have popped up, regular as an army of soldiers. I blink again and they are taller, and then taller still, every time I blink. Their green stems begin to spread out like open arms. Every time I look, they are wider, taller. In the dream, I am suddenly overcome with a feeling of what Joel S. Goldsmith refers to as “the Is-ness of God.” A feeling of an inevitable, benign Process, beyond understanding, certainly beyond being resisted or stopped…perhaps closest to that expression, “the flow of Time.” But in this dream, it is so much more…so grand and all-encompassing.

I can feel that Flow moving through me, too, as I watch the onions growing. Suddenly (in the dream) I understand what Byron Katie writes about  in her book, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. To paraphrase, This moment is exactly the way it is supposed to be…because it Is. How could it be anything else? All of the events of the past have lined up to create this moment as it is, and there is no changing this moment at all. Why resist? Maybe the next moment can be different, but this one has already been cast in cement…resisting What Is will be as ineffective as resisting the flow of Time. Then the phone rang (in real life) and I woke up.

Two dreams in a row on the subject of not resisting the flow of events… perhaps I should take this to heart?

Resistance is devious. It can take many forms: impatience, frustration, unhappiness, sadness, anger, fear, depression, being creatively blocked. But non-resistance is very different from succumbing or giving up…it is actually a participatory activity, like learning how to float…and there is great wisdom in it. Lao Tzu is so clear on this subject, translated here by Witter Bynner.

“…When a man is in turmoil, how shall he find peace, save by staying patient till the stream clears? How can a man’s life keep its course if he will not let it flow? Those who flow as life flows, know they need no other force: they feel no wear, they feel no tear, they need no mending, no repair.”

I’ve been feeling pretty worn-out lately from my habitual struggling and resistance to What Is. No surprise then that, upon seeing the new Illustration Friday’s word of the week, the phrase which came immediately to mind was, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” It seems that I’ve been sent a wake-up call in the form of two dreams: Stop Resisting!

May your holidays be perfect, however that looks to you, and may your New Year be filled with beauty in every form!

Title Unknown (diptych, oil on canvas)

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c. Susan Sorrell Hill

The Illustration Friday word of the week is ripple.

Did you play the children’s game where a whispered sentence goes from one to the next, changing in hilarious ways as it traveled around the circle? Have you witnessed the ripple effect as a person wakes up irritable, kicks the dog, the now-nervous dog nips at a neighbor’s child, the child screams, and the neighbor sues…? Communication–whether it be action, word or mood–has a lot of negative potential.

An uncredited quote from my ubiquitous scrapbook couches this ripple effect in contemporary societal terms: “One great paradox about the age of mass communications is that misinformation can now be passed along to more people than ever before.” Newspaper tabloids profit from this trend, and it is worth considering that daily newspapers and television can also spread misinformation, inadvertently and otherwise. A published book does not necessarily contain Truth, and even photographs may be ‘doctored’ now to moderate their effect. What can we trust?

However, for better or worse, we humans are still very tribal in the way that we receive and communicate information. We are hard-wired to react to everything and everyone around us and, most especially, to our peers. It is very tempting, very easy to surrender to the expert’s opinion, to the Tradition, no matter how poorly the fit. In the last century, Anais Nin (1903-1977) wrote, “We always keep forgetting… that we live in a very deadening culture, a very corrupt one.” But even in the twenty-first century, it is a sad fact, that there are so many of us who follow the path of least resistance. The Still Small Voice within each of us is easily drowned out when there is no intention or encouragement to listen to it… and humanity as a whole suffers for this error.

But that quiet voice is still there. And it is important to remember, “The way that can be followed is not the way,” (attributed to Lao Tzu, 4th century BC). I do not mean to advocate anarchy here, but simply the cultivation of each of our own unique potentials within the whole of this thing called the human race. And it is a Whole. Modern science is beginning to verify the mystics’ stance that we are all connected in some invisible way, and that we all share information, no matter how distant how bodies. “The Hundredth Monkey effect” is a contemporary expression of something that we all know, deep down, to be true. Modern communication technology, astounding as it is, mirrors only a fraction of what humans are capable of.

If we are all unique, all connected, the implications can only boil down to this: each of us is here to offer her individual gifts and her portion of the Light to everyone else… for the good of all. The inhabitants of this planet cannot afford to hold onto the illusion that we are all ‘separate’ much longer. The environmentalist, John Seed makes this very clear: “Just hold your breath for two minutes and you will understand the illusion of separation. There is no separation possible. We are constantly cycling the water and air and earth through us.” The belief in humans as separate (which is not the same as individual) is a belief whose run has ended.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1825-1926) wrote: “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” And it is in our communication, the very energy that we ripple out from the center of ourselves, that we have the potential to communicate love… or something else. We communicate through our creativity of any form, our attitudes, our moment-by-moment actions and our words. We change the world, keep it the same or make it worse with every moment’s choice. I am not saying that the best choice is easy… only that it is necessary.  “Mostly people change not because they see the light, but because they feel the heat.” (Unknown)

Can you feel the heat?

“Communication” (oil on paper)

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