December 3, 2010

target moving or moving target

“But, why?” When you are doing something that just lights you up and a new employee of Morgan Stanley asks this question, be peaceful in the faith and conviction that you are moving in a good direction.

I was effusively showing my old college buddy recent graphic studies and sketches I had been making based upon the incredible mathematical ratio known as the Golden Section. It is also called the Divine Proportion, and my introduction to it in a somewhat dusty, pedantic and oh-so-British tome from 1914 entitled The Curves of Life was my first glimpse into God in All Things. One of those old Royal Society types, Theodore Andrea Cook, had spent twenty years documenting how this mystical proportion and its concomitant spiral growth patterns underlie every form in nature. Leaves spiral around branches at the exact same ratio as sunflower seeds whirling in their meditative circles. Our own hearts beat with a rhythm proportionally the same as the spiral of every shell and the branching of every tree. I had been happily going pretty much nuts over all of this, throwing curves with my old compass and protractor on voluminous scraps of paper and then throwing paint and other messy marks on top. Sure, I was trying to make beautiful things. But, I realize now that what I was really doing was learning to be reverent in the presence of beauty, and learning that beauty is everywhere. My good friend admitted that it was all sort of cool, but really just wanted to know, “What are you trying to accomplish with this?”

I was only twenty-two. Unfortunately, peace and conviction were still mysterious lights, faint but insistent, on my own far horizon. He really rattled me. I was an art-school dropout with a one-room studio over an antique store in Houston, Texas, trying to paint portraits because “that’s something people will pay for.” I had only accidentally come across this book because, as the daughter of a hard-working engineer, I had been working hard to study human anatomy. My diligent efforts to realistically represent the human face and figure had led first to life-drawing open studios, then to anatomical study alongside several friends attending Baylor College of Medicine, and then to their academic libraries. I was learning where the sternocleidomastoid muscle articulates, but I was nowhere near grasping why to paint in the first place.

Stumbling onto the Golden Mean, and just playing around with it, was the first true fun I felt in my studio. But, I set it all aside and got back to work after my more properly employed friend’s visit. Then, in preparing for my big trip to Nepal that fall, another book hopped into my hands. While studying guidebooks and maps at a very granola local outfitters store, the slim quiet binding of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery kept winking at me like a little philosophical gnome playfully hiding between the heavy How To Climb Rocks titles and the herbal field medicine manuals. Zen? What’s that? “The way of the ‘artless art’.” “Zen is the ‘everyday mind’.” What was this guy talking about? But, by page 31, I was hooked…

“The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless!”

“What must I do, then?” I asked thoughtfully.

“You must learn to wait properly.”

“And how does one learn that?”

“By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”

“So I must become purposeless… on purpose?”

These ideas seemed weird at first, but they also cut right through to the heart of the tension I felt at the time, my doubt and insecurity about even trying to be an artist and my even deeper insecure sense of self-worth. I went back to my explorations with mathematical curves. I didn’t accomplish a lot, and I never did sell anything I made at the time apart from those few portraits. Looking back, though, I see that I accomplished something so profound that I wouldn’t even comprehend it for over twenty years. I began to let go. I got one single pinky finger to stop clinging quite so desperately to the need for accomplishment. I became just a little bit gentler, with myself and with others. I began moving in a better direction.

A few years ago, just after my divorce, I found one of those artistic experiments on a yellowing piece of graph paper. I had entitled it, “Moving Target.” I hung it over my bed and took the little book to bed with me. I found only one passage marked, and I smiled with the realization that, blessedly, I had waited properly these twenty years, because now I could understand.

“Do you now understand,” the Master asked me one day after a particularly good shot, “what I mean by ‘It shoots,’ ‘It hits’?”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand anything more at all,” I answered, “even the simplest things have gotten into a muddle. Is it “I” who draw the bow, or the bow that draws me into a state of highest tension? Do ‘I’ hit the goal, or does the goal hit me? Is ‘It’ spiritual when seen by the eyes of the body, and corporeal when seen by the eyes of the spirit—or both or neither? Bow, arrow, goal and ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate them has gone….”

“Now at last,” the Master broke in, “the bowstring has cut right through you.”

At college, I had heard about a feared and revered professor of philosophy whose final exams were always daunting. One year, he handed out those old blue books with but one question attached. “Why?”

While most of the students dove into three hours of agony, attempting to distill a year’s worth of philosophical history into exhaustive summations, one freshman got up after three minutes, turned in his booklet and left. Apparently, he got the only perfect score in the history of that teacher’s class. He had written one word on the first page. “Because.”

moving target

© A.E. Wynn 2010

Categories: Books, The Curves of Life, Zen, Zen in the Art of Archery