I know for most of us, it is not currently cold. If you are reading this on a particularly hot day, may this post be like standing in front of the open refrigerator - and a reflection on how much can change in just a few months. This was written last winter.
Today, I consider the cold to be a form of mess. It's a pristine and gorgeous form of cold outside. There are big, slow, lazy flakes floating down, and a fresh, powdery coat of white snow on every available surface. The studio is all snow light, and on both peripheries, the gentle sifting motion animates the windows. It is ten degrees farenhiet outside.
I have built a champion fire in my wood stove. There are five logs ablaze in front of me, and the glass door is closed, so that the fire blazes to its highest. I am doing everything in my power to bring the small thermometer on the stove surface into the 'burn zone', the deep orange part of the thermometer between yellow and hazardous red, between 300 and 600 degrees. Currently, we are at 250 degrees, and having taken off my mittens to write, I have discovered that it's not warm enough. My fingers are quickly cold, hard, frozen nuggets. When I have managed to crest into the burn zone on other days, I have done a little dance and sung a little song. Because once there, you can generally coast there, and actually feel the space heat up. As it stands now, I'm close, but at popsicle finger level still. And I can see my breath very clearly.
Not being in the burn zone means that there is not enough heat in here to step further from the stove, to sit a the table, and get absorbed in artwork. Even two feet from the stove here, is not warm enough for the ten degree day outside bright, no sun. I have thought about crowding all relevant furniture within two feet of the stove. This would be unmanageable on many levels, so it's just a chair.
Is this a problem? Perhaps not, only maybe if I sit and consider this one thing as needing to happen, to be warm in the studio and working when in fact it is too cold to work in here. It may take five years to figure this depth of winter temp management shit out. Is a mess the same thing as a problem? I suppose this whole series is an exploration of that. It is a way of normalizing and sharing the mess as part of what is natural and normal about life. About the activity of being alive.
In the mind frame of a stoic, I could deeply appreciate that I can just go inside, into the warmth, even climb in the bath, and be overly hot in 30 minutes. I'll go back to the fire with a few more stoking moves, and then we shall see.
This title makes it sound like this random white bookshelf has a title, but until this post it has gone nameless. I made the simple discovery that Ikea folding white vertical file holders fit perfectly in it, and ever since it has become a moment of visual calm and apparent order in a room that truly is usually just a huge mess.
This object containing objects fits with the very cheapskate theme of most of my objects, found in the trash or in junk shops, in that I believe I acquired this object from my mother's home, back when I was about 19, and these folding file holders are like three bucks a three pack or cheaper. Because I work with found paper a lot, several of these bins are filled with just that, or with materials test information, older labels, process docs, my own reviews and old postcards, others show postcards that I want to remember or project materials that are too bulky for regular filing but to papery for box storage.
In any case, this bookshelf of bins makes me feel mildly like a professional. I worked for a while at the Montserrat College Gallery, and there I encountered a similar storage system of their exhibition document history. I realized then that just like a gallery, I have a history of events, of reviews, of print materials, as well as paper materials that come in handy for different projects, and they all go here.
It's taken all day to get into the studio. There are days like this when I feel fiercely protective of my time in here. The funniest thing is that what I do in here looks like so little outwardly. I read a little, I write a little, I drink coffee if I have it, I listen to music. Sometimes I nap. And sometimes it's all activity and insight and inspiration and stepping back and looking or marking and cutting and placing, digging around for stuff. My favorite is when I'm on a roll with something, when I know what I'm doing and how and I love what I'm making, when I'm literally delighted, or internally lit up, or you could say joyous, about what I'm doing.
I got a book by Anne Truitt off the free pile from my good friend's studio's common area. I'm feeling it.
I read these lines just now:
...this process is mysterious. It's like not knowing where you're going but knowing how to get there. The fifteen years that David Smith thought it took to become an artist are spent partly in learning how to move ahead sure-footedly as if you did actually know where you are going. -Anne Truitt
Yes, it's like tracking yourself. Where was I? What was I caring about the last time I was in here? What did I learn? What did I know I was to do next?
I also read these lines: At first tentatively and then with more confidence, I began to find delight in the acquiescence [to the natural flow of events], and finally even a kind of joy in acceptance.
Also Anne Truitt.
I enjoy reading what artists write - some of them, and how they talk about what they care about, because it's generally 180 degrees opposite how the rest of the world is marching along, and it feels like a tall glass of water when I'm thirsty. Those are my feelings and my words.
Anne Truitt had a very up front professional career. I am tired by the thought of trying at that anymore, but I have confidence that what I do and make is no less important or inspired, when the inspiration is here. So that's a kind of acceptance and freedom. Freedom in knowing that it isn't up to some art scene mafia to decide what is of value to this one in the middle of her life, and what's of value is letting this natural flow occur. I had a lovely early career in Boston. A sweet little CV of shows and associations. I am pleased to have that memory. There may be more in the future, and they may not be. And that is not for me to decide. But it is, right now, clear that my job is to show up here and make work, and share about it, and the process of making it. There's no question to me that I am an artist making strong work. I don't doubt that. I may and often do doubt pieces, if they're resolved, if the presentation is strong and clear, etc. But not if the activity and the viewpoint is of value. No one will prioritize this more than me. And the same time, it's all ordinary art-making.
Someone just stopped in to invite me to join them for digging up some free plants across town. It's nice, and it requires me telling the truth, that No. There is nothing in me that wants to leave my studio to go dig up some plants. No and no. thanks. Maybe another day. Not now.
"In making my work, I make what comforts me, and what is home for me."
Are you comforted by making your work?
[I notice this question might be for the creatives reading, but consider that if you are reading here, my guess is that you are a creative whether you like it, know it, or not! In other words, this applies to anyone reading. So...]
Are you comforted by making your work?
I don't think comfort is a motivating factor in art-making for me. Perhaps the whole process of showing up to make, the routine of it, is a comfort, but the work is brightening and enlivening to me, sometimes disturbing to me, so I wouldn't say comforting. I don't make what comforts me, do I?
Sometimes making certain marks on certain surfaces, and finding the composition that is a YES to me, feels like putting things in order, or like straightening up the world. Putting it right. Perhaps that is a comfort to me.
There is also a discovery process, where for a long time there can be the same pile of materials, or the same kind of shape or process, and suddenly, by mistake or a loosening of something, or just paying closer attention to it and engaging it, the same 'stuff', in some new way or combination, has a new kind of pop or magic to it. That discovery is delightful to me. And then watching what happens to this discovery, or a new process, if it is sustained, or if it sort of fizzles out quickly. Exploring the questions of what sustains it, is in itself, quite motivating and engaging.
It's always felt really clear to me when something I make in the studio is valuable, though not always right away. Sometimes however, doubt gets ahold, some cloudy afternoon when it's cold, and the whole project seems lifeless or a complete lark with no value at all. I have also dreamed of some gorgeous things, while sleeping, and woken up besotted with interest, but not actually brought these things forward. Those are great dreams. Was I supposed to make that stuff? I don't know. Can you relate to this?
There was a period too where some of the marks that really satisfied me, didn't seem to hold up to scrutiny and I couldn't figure out what was going on. I think the intimate scale of making wasn't holding up to the more distant act of viewing a work from further away. In other words, my lines were falling apart from a distance, and I wasn't in enough conversation with others to realize it. This is where relationship, scrutiny, conversation, is so useful.
There are people like Henry Darger who hole up and just do their thing, and later someone realizes it was brilliant, in his own little world, so complete and unapologetic. And I think in a way, that innocence is the thing of letting your inner kid have free reign and knowing that this is where the brilliance is. But there's also the reality that for every discovered Henry Darger there's a rotting pile of papers on a landfill of someone else's world. And it will likely be mine!
There's a freedom in seeing how none of this ultimately matters. Even when a small mark or line also counts. That's a fine line I seem to walk, where there's a need for freedom to break a rule I had laid down, or to make a mess of something, and then there's the self curation, the conversation, the response of others, the asking of questions, and then choosing again. Nothing matters and everything counts.
In the end, it sometimes just comes down to color therapy. When I am surrounded by the colors, as well as the relationships of texture and forms, I feel fulfilled. Happy. Pleased in the most basic sense.
The rest of the art process: the part about jockeying for notice and applying and all of that makes me feel tired before I even begin. And so, I tend to not do that, and pursue other avenues. In part, this is because, when I do have a "show" where I put on a blouse and some boots and eat some sweaty cheese with friends, it often doesn't hold much magic afterall. It is however, truly a delight to meet people through the sharing of the work. To feel like my spirit and someone else's spirit meet through the resonance with my work, or their work, or the conversation that artwork ultimately can be is quite a thing. That is deeply valuable to me, and motivates me to write, to put things in print, to find other avenues to sharing that don't involve as much of a dog & pony show. Life is too short to be a pony or a dog.
Is what you make a comfort for you? I guess in some ways, it turns out to be for me.
This small cylinder is a recent addition. I have had one in the bathroom at home for years, and I enjoy its shape, size and the texture of all of the small Q tip tips making a nubbly top surface. In the bathroom it is for the usual things, but in the studio it is a very specific tool for painting.
When painting in any medium, there is often a need to wipe away, either too wet pigments, or to pull away a lighter line, or a specific spot. I don't generally use it to daub pigment on, mainly because there's too much fuzz and it would likely absorb too much of the paint. But it is a great tool, the Q tip, or cotton swab if you prefer, for removing specific small areas of paint or overly wet paint from an artwork in any paint medium.
I also really do love having such a good use for such a cylindrical cup. I found a couple of these at a junk shop, and used them to drink coffee out of until I noticed a very strong soap smell emanating from my coffee. After repeated washings, there was no hope, but there is use always, for a small container of Q tips, and this is when it became a team player in the studio.
Your I spent a lot of time considering whether to even use the word prayer in my books at all. It's one of those hot button type of words, for many, and could be a turnoff. So I considered others.
Other words I considered using instead of prayer included:
Have I forgotten any that come to mind for you?
Writing all of these down makes me a) want to find an anneagram just because that sounds like fun (SPARPIAA? APRIAPSA!) and b) helps shed light perhaps, into what prayer is.
This is a post for the word lovers and the wordsmiths, and those interested in contemplative prayer as a concept, through the exploration of similar terms.
I always find this - that just translating, rewording, re-expressing something a different way, gets in between the labels and the lines a little more, into the experience of a thing itself. I know for me the word prayer is a label. It’s something that THUNK has a symbolic shape and feeling and form. For some, this symbol or label has a positive tone or feeling about it, or a mixed tone, or something aversive, irrelevant or negative about it.
When sharing about this book with say, museum shops, I avoided using the word in email post titles because so many people would just say NEOPE and delete it. Anyway, here’s what I learned from the consideration of and use of other terms.
Petition was not as religious of a word, and so might have been more descriptive or inclusive, and yet for me there is a pairing with politics, PTA meetings, civic dialogue. This kind of petition, meaning the kind you find in three of my books, is intimate, sometimes wordless, sometimes even embodied in gesture.
Supplication, to supplicate, is the ‘act of begging for something earnestly or humbly.’ Someone pointed out to me that that is one type of prayer you might find in my books, but it isn’t what all of them are. Some of them are more like ‘Hey thanks!’ or ‘I’m not cool with this’ and those are points of contact, but not supplications.
Affirmations do apply to many of these prayers. This is language more of Buddhism, freed up from religiosity in the traditional western sense. An affirmation by one definition is a form of emotional support and encouragement, and so when directed from me to me, or from me to someone else, may be like: ‘You’re doing great!’ or ‘You’re beautiful, don’t ever change.’ Some of the prayers in my books have this kind of tone, but instead they would be phrased like ‘Remind me’ or ‘show me that I am beautiful…’ which combines supplication or affirmation.
Requests would work, for sure. or even the word Bid. I like the word bid, popularized by the phrase ‘Bids for connection’ in the work of John Gottman, because a bid can take many forms, and I think prayer can be the way one lives a life, receives a gift, receives an unwelcome piece of news or a loss, or essentially, does anything. So I do like Bid. I’ll keep that one in mind. But on the cover of a book, it might relate more to the association with an auction and the Highest Bidder.
It has been pointed out to me that this series of books of prayers are essentially poems. Yes. However if I thought of them a poems, I would be twisting myself into knots, trying to wordsmith the crap out of them, and nary a one would have been published. So I’m glad that thought didn’t occur to me. But for many, I have learned, they look at these as books of poetry, and this opens things up even more.
Intention. Intention is a word I use a lot. It’s a word that gives shape to the nebulous. It’s a word from which things materialize. I find that prayer is a form of intention. It is an intention perhaps to connect. To widen, open, release, remember, rest, through a bid for connection, or a prayer. It has a great relevance to these books. These books as I see them at this moment, are a way to frame an experience, a way to shape or re-see and turn to a new view of what had previously been understood, thought of, or determined. It’s like a pulling back and opening up. And these are all a form of reshaping, intending. There is a collaborative aspect to both the prayers and to intentions. Intentions perhaps connote a more self oriented activity, but perhaps these prayers are similarly that as well.
Ask is just a term that I rarely use, but a fun alternate to throw in there: Contemporary Asks to Whatever Works? sure, but the grammar gets confusing!
Aspiration - a hope or ambition of achieving something. Yes, this does fit. An aspiration to whatever works, is like a bid or an ask, a form of reaching. And prayer is in a sense an act of reaching.
So, that’s my meander through a process of vetting terms for the title of my books. Incidentally, the third prayer book is called the same thing as the first. Originally it was going to be called Volume 2, with the same name, but the sales team decided that for new readers that would be confusing and so left it off. So I refer to it as the All New 2021 Edition for the purposes of clarity, because it is all new art and all new prayers.
Your thoughts? Other book title ideas for the future? Please comment below!
Find Hannah's other books for sale here.
I am noticing a theme of thrift in my studio object register. Here is another thrifty item, originally a simple pack of wooden clothes pins. These first arrived as part of a project in Gloucester, in which I was 'installing' powder, rubber, plastic, twine, wood and rock in color coded arrangements throughout the park. It was one of the first such interventions I had done, and to my mind, it was one of the least successful. I had no sense of scale, and my plan was very under developed, so that when it came time to execute, a visitor could not see the work from any distance, and it could be confused with a mess left behind by a child. I suppose that could be said about several of my projects in fact! But this was an early example of such work. Anyway, I used yellow, green, white, pink and blue paint to dip the tips of these wooden pins in, and then used them to affix similar colored materials to various park furniture. You can see more of this project here.
When the project was over, these pins just became part of the mix in the studio. Some are in a bag of deinstalled projects, available for remakes and new projects. Several have been ready for use on my tool caddy, along with the ubiquitous black clips. And recently, they are seen on the working wall, holding new works on paper in place to be studied, glanced at, pulled down and worked into. I recently stapled a small box to the wall, for unused clips and another for nails and pins. While that's a separate tool, the boxes, they now house the clips, some dipped, some just wooden. The plain wood ones likely also came from inside the house, where they find occasional uses, but many more here in the studio.
I also use them to clip up things I dip in paint and hang to dry. This can be heavy papers, pieces of wood, and even the clips themselves. It's fun to dip stuff in paint, for me.
I love this essay by painter Agnes Martin, and I love a particular passage in it for artists:
“You must especially know the response that you make to your own work. It is in this way that you discover your direction and the truth about yourself. If you do not discover your response to your own work, you miss the reward. You must look at the work and know how it makes you feel.”
from Beauty is the Mystery of Life, an essay by Agnes Martin.
Being in the studio alone can have many flavors to it. One can be relief, another freedom and delight, another is pressure to use this space your paying for, or have claimed, to do something “important” and unique and great and special. And, upon not feeling like that’s happening, there can be a feeling of existential dread. Do you know whereof I speak?
I investigated this feeling the other day. Meaning that I started with a funny twinge of discomfort, kind of like when you see a little sprout of a weed in the garden, and pull at it, and then discover this runner root zigzagging and netting all over the place, under and around all of the healthy plants. So, the little innocent weed was like a twinge. As I looked it took on more shape. It became stories like “I thought it was something and it’s nothing” underneath that was “I thought I was something and it turns out I’m nothing” or “I thought I was an artist but it turns out I’m a fraud” is another version people get. Underneath that was like a lizard brain ancestral kind of “Game Over” feeling, like the feeling you might have when lost in a desert, having run out of water, having been optimistic until this momentary shift to - Game Over - I thought I might just make it but it turns out I’m toast.
That’s what I mean about existential dread. Art making is so intimate, so ethereal, and so marginal in my culture - it’s not considered essential in the economy or the running of a civic society - and so it can be very intense sometimes, if you have planted a flag or hope to, to come up against generations, policies, and personal stories of - this and you, are a joke.
So, back to this lovely quote by Agnes Martin. In a way, what I think she’s saying here is: No one’s going to care if you don’t. This is an inside job. Strengthen your muscle of commitment to looking, responding, staying open, letting it not always work out, and be honest with what brightens and inspires and interests or even disturbs you, versus what you think others will think, or what will pass or look good, but has no juice for you.
I’m not Agnes Martin and I don’t know what she means, but I do get from this essay that you have to practice putting your own response first, because everything else is just smoke and mirrors. And in a way, you are just smoke and mirrors too, which can be terrifying to realize, but also liberating to discover that truly, none of this matters at all, but somehow too, all of it counts. How well you attend to yourself, or show up for these sprouts of fear that turn out to have a big old root system going back generations and years, is the special sauce of creative practice. It’s essentially like being on retreat with all of your demons, and all of your angels, and keeping steady, sometimes, in the midst of it all.
I marvel that in my 20s, I stumbled into an amazing situation: a great economy, an amazing loft space with artsists in downtown Boston, a good job, and time and interest to just make and make and make art, that people bought. I do also remember how acrid some of my time in the studio was, when the praise and the boons and the sales wasn’t enough. I hated myself underneath, mostly because I didn’t know myself, and I was hanging on to the idea that if you liked me, I’d be ok. But that’s a losing proposition, because everyone on this planet, as my friend Bryan likes to say, is third graders, that’s as skillful and mature as we humans get. So putting my self worth in the hands of you all on the playground is not so smart of a plan.
So eventually, as the cracks started showing: overdoing alcohol and boys and anxiety mounting, some of the root system began to get undug. Until the whole garden was just dirt and I was exhausted and apparently had lost everything. But the ground for things to grow, I realized, was purer and clearer and freer than it had been. So now a whole lifetime later, it’s a flourishing garden with other root systems needing balancing - and those little seedlings of “I’m toast” asking for my attention, which equals my love.
In the end, yes, I am toast. Inconsequential and nothing. Forgotten, maybe 50 years or sooner after I’m dead by anyone that knew me. Turned into something else by anyone who may have known of me. Nothing! Light as a feather. Lighter. Freer. Terrifying!!
Can you relate to the studio demons? Or are they keeping you from the very prospect of a studio in the first place? How do you ground and respond to yourself, your creative work, and your twinges of terror? What are you attending to? What’s growing in your garden plot? What would you like to grow there?
This object has been traveling with me for over 14 years from studio to studio. I have never actually exhibited it. I may never. It has shown up in several studio photographs because it is often out and commanding a small parcel of wall or shelf. I made it in 2007 when I had a studio in Somerville MA. I was wrapping and folding and stabbing and dipping stuff, and came up eventually with the series called Three Variables that was on view at Judy Goldman Fine Art. This little pink sculpture was a scout for those, in that it was an experiment that caught my attention but didn't feel resolved. It has, to me, a lot of personality.
What I didn't see then, but do now, is that it is a figure. This is probably obvious to everybody else, but it's taken a while to understand what it is. To me, it's the bundle of energy parts, or sensations, or just parts, that comprise a person, probably in this case, me. Wrapping chords of tension, layers of diverse textures and materials, a chunky little core, and in this case, what appears to be like a side pony in a now corroded rubber band on top. Now I see it's essentially a self portrait.
I call it a Scout because Chris Nau, an artist in the same building at the time, shared this term with me for something that you do and eventually, years later, it makes sense, in light of the future work you hadn't yet made. Like a precursor or a portent. This is a small reminder of perhaps the spirit of Hannah, my small Daemon, though it's never been for anybody else but me. I like to place it on the top edge of a shelf or painting and just balance out the room with it's vibe. Here it is in situ, meaning situated just above the mess.
There are many forms of meditation:
Formal and structured
Open eye, walking around in the world types
Closed eye or soft eye meditation seated
Mystical and direct path practices
Loving kindness practice
and many different flavors, cultures and styles to how these are presented:
Zen from Korea, Japan and elsewhere
Vipassana from Burma and Thailand
on so many more
You may yourself already have a practice, have favorite books, a community and a personal philosophy. You may be sampling and learning.
Whatever your situation, I recommend that you do whichever one feels literally the easiest and the most relaxed. We don't need to tie ourselves into knots over something else in our lives. We have plenty of ways of doing so already. So do whatever feels effective and easy for you.
I love the simple exercise Ajahn Chah had listeners try in a talk he gave once. He asked: Do you notice that you are seeing right now? Just check.
Then he asked, how much effort does that seeing take?
That's the effort that is needed for meditation - just that little bit of noticing. No efforting, no big doing, or trying.
I love this. I agree.
I bought these out of fascination at a big box store in Watertown, just down the way from the in-mall registry of motor vehicles where I was one million and one in line to get a license renewed. I strolled in and found these shoes, so ugly that I found them beautiful. They were a gray blue, the blue of crafting projects of New Hampshire, and they were a slip on clog as you can see. They had a molded pattern as if they were a sneaker, except that they were all plastic, and a clog. Do you see why I had to have them for $10? I hope so.
As it turned out, these shoes were unbelievably comfortable and I wore them everywhere, with most all ensembles. I could walk all over the city of Boston in these shoes! And I did. When I had a studio at Humphreys Street, the summers there were unbelievably hot. I sweltered. I would arrive to have a productive day and just wilt, and swoon. My clogs did not breath, and altogether, this situation was untenable. Did I buy an air conditioner? No. Not even a thermometer to get a read on how hot it actually was. But I did take a straight razor and not so straightly cut two wide strips out of the toe area as you see here. Not very well, but it did the job.
I no longer wear the shoes about town, but I do still use them in the studio. I have never seen anything like them before or since, and so I continue to value them. They remain a valuable studio tool and they magically do not smell.
In the theme of messes, I introduce the topic of the insurmountable problem.
An insurmountable problem is one for which there is no present solution, no clear way around, and nothing to do about nothing. Something that is insurmountable is something 'incapable of being overcome'.
I would call an insurmountable problem a mess, in that it is something that grinds to a halt, like, for example, a movie theatre during covid. It's a mess because one is powerless to change that fact.
A smaller example has come up for me in the past several weeks that to me has felt big. Yes it is a complete luxury problem, and still, it's in my face and has been blocking my work. I have a new wood stove in my art studio. It was going gangbusters, and then suddenly, two months in, began filling the room with smoke whenever I opened the door. And I mean even when I was lighting the fire.
I cleaned the baffle, the lower chimney pipe, I called the manufacturer, I consulted friends about the wood quality, I lit smokeless fires with no paper. I cleaned the ash pan and the firebox out completely, and even the stove glass window. Still, smoke pours into the room.
So this, right now, seems like an insurmountable problem to me, a mess!
For about five days, I avoided the studio. It had soot dust floating hither and thither, and it was cold, and it reminded me of my insurmountable problem.
When I was imagining the studio finished, when it was just a rough shell, I knew that this amazing new space would be incredible, but eventually, in the manner of Pavlov's Dog, would become either ordinary or overlooked, or worse, the source of a problem or headache, or lots.
This is how it goes. A boon is often accompanied by stress from new responsibilities and new things to attend to. And this studio was a major boon for me. So, the insurmountable problem in my tiny world is the stove.
For an insurmountable problem, my only answer, and my very very best move, is prayer.
What prayer does, is it allows me to put the insurmountable concern down. To stop the obsessive anxious brain spin. To not worry this like a bone, lose sleep, catastrophize, try and force solutions, freak out, break something while exhausted and forcing things, avoid showing up, and lose all perspective. When I surrender it, I actually can stop thinking about it and focus on other things. And I have found when I do so, things shift without my trying to shift them.
I wrote or said a prayer something like this:
[ ], I place this wood stove situation completely in your care. I hand it over, I surrender it completely to you. Thank you for taking care of it, and thank you for inspiring me and directing me toward any small action to assist you in so doing. I am deeply grateful that you are taking care of this and I thank you for this beautiful stove and studio.
Instead of avoiding the place, which was feeling like a set jaw, or like a stubborn latch I didn't want to open, I prayed or in other words, set an intention to find myself in there again, enjoying and appreciating the space, thriving creatively, engaged and happy, this week.
As prayer, this intention looks something like this:
[ ], I would love the inspiration, willingness and motivation to be in the studio again, happily at work, engaged and filled with gratitude for what a lovely space it is. Help me to be warm and at peace with things just as they are and, oh yeah, again, that stove? I leave it entirely with you.
So today is Monday, and after avoiding the studio all weekend and praying when it started to roost in my thinking, I felt inspired to step in there with my tea and journal this morning, put a blanket down on a seat so my butt wouldn't get cold, and blasted the milk house heater at my feet. There I did some writing.
The other form of prayer that I engaged in this morning was a form of gratitude, to 'want what I have' rather than only see things as a SNAFU (which stands for Situation all fucked up in case you didn't know).
I wrote a list of everything that I love about the studio:
It's location, the light, the views out the windows, the white walls, the closet, the table space, the organization, the wifi...
and everything that I've done in there since I moved back in
Inventorying, completing lots of work, starting a new series, photographing and filming, completing the space, writing a lot, having an occasional covid-safe studio visit...
Both of which helped me see things in a new light, and give me a feeling of inspiration and accomplishment and gratitude.
To be clear, this is now an automatic process, that began in times when I was super stuck for a long time, and it is a process that I use not to be 'good' or saccharin, but because it literally blasts out the shitty cobwebs that yield more shitty cobwebs when allowed to hang around for long.
When the list was done, I found myself trying one more fire - NOPE! no change, just a smokey, shitty mess. I then found myself sweeping, dusting, organizing, rearranging, making a list of what I'm doing with what project, and then came three actions, a minor plan of sorts, for further troubleshooting the stove. By showing some love to the space, I also got out the soot and cobwebs, and cleaned up the flow and possibility in there as well.
As I write this, I've asked for help, spoken with my husband's friend Lenny, troubleshooted with him, and asked our good friend Al to borrow his chimney cleaning brush.
The next step is a little unclear, but I am likely to be shown what it is when it's time. The goal is to inspect the upper section of the chimney as creosote has likely blocked the opening as I've only gotten to the lower half.
So the tools at work here for insurmountable problem situations are - (not necessarily in any order, or looking or feeling good in the process)
This metal box is a bit not the right container for the teas and tea paraphernalia that I use in the studio because it is a) too small b) meant for more serious things, and c) ugly. However, it is *the* tea box, and has been for years. It usually and currently contains some dish towels, boxes and individual packets of tea bags, and a few tea cups and mugs. It sits atop a bookshelf, and carries with it the friendly anticipation of a studio visit where one might serve tea. If I have snacks, the fact that the tea box is metal with a latch means that a mouse would be less drawn to the box. Happily there are no mice as of yet in this studio!
When it is just me, which is most of the time, the tea cups are stacked in a jumble and most of them have the dried dregs of my own tea or coffee drinkings. Which means that when someone is coming for a bonafide studio visit, I will wash these, or swap them out for other mugs from my kitchen that are dishwasher clean. Sometimes it's a bit like camping in the studio when it's just me.
I currently have mostly tisanes: or herbal teas, in the manner of ginger, ginger turmeric and mint. A few green teas lurk, and if one requests black tea, I can dig some up in the house.
The studio for many years has been the receptacle for things I have discarded from my home, but can be handy anyway. The Q tip jar for example, which was a failed coffee cup, extra fancy china that no one else in my home likes to use, and the beer steins that I once started compulsively collected but stopped after I had 5 of them. I have two left, and they are actually part of a Stand In sculpture, though at times have been used for tea during a visit. Other objects from home that have a rag tag second life in the studio include favorite cashmere sweaters with too many moth holes, corduroy jean shorts and heavy messed up pants for dirty paint projects, plastic molded clogs, and lots of yogurt containers at one point, though not currently.
In a sense, the studio can certainly be an excuse to never let anything go, in the tradition of the New Englander who can find a use for anything, and as a mixed media artist I mean anything.
But these days, though there is certainly a lot of serious stuff in the studio, it has been pared down to only the more essential junk, and whisked away into what I hope will stay an orderly closet.
Finally, here is an image from an art project from 2007 called Tangle, in which contents of my Tea Box were wrapped on my head. To see more of this project visit hannahburr.com/tangle.
There are many forms of meditation:
Formal and structured
Open eye, walking around in the world types
Closed eye or soft eye meditation seated
Mystical and direct path practices
Loving kindness practice
and more. Also, there are many different flavors, cultures and styles to how these are presented:
Zen from Korea, Japan and elsewhere
Vipassana from Burma and Thailand
Ancient Tantric practices
Islamic Mystical Versions
Christian Mystical versions
Jewish Mystical versions
on so on.
You may yourself already have a practice, have favorite books, a community and a personal philosophy. You may be sampling and learning. Whatever your situation, I recommend that you do whichever one feels literally the easiest and the most relaxed. We don't need to tie ourselves into knots over something else in our lives. We have plenty of ways of doing so already. So do whatever feels effective and easy for you, and let it change if it feels kinda stuck.
I love the simple exercise Ajahn Chah had listeners try in a talk he gave once. He asked: Do you notice that you are seeing right now? Just check.
Then he asked, how much effort does that seeing take?
That's the effort that is needed for meditation - just that little bit of noticing. No efforting, no big doing, or trying.
I love this. I agree.
Another kind of mess is not knowing. This feels very messy, though it is a very common experience on this planet. How will it turn out? Any project is full of such unknowns, and add to that a team of people you don't know very well, and multiply the unknowns by 2X the number of people on the project, and you have what can feel like a very big mess. How to interpret a silence can be messy in an of itself, and this is in so many places where silence is occurring: Did we get in? Will he call back? Do they like it? Am I going to get to keep this job? Am I dying? Are we ok? What happens next?
The good news is that every religion in the world, most philosophies and many spiritual traditions, as well as the content of most magazines and books, is in response to just this kind of mess, and is filled with explanations, theories, ideas, fixit strategies, processes, hacks and stories to help ostensibly with such a mess as the unknown. Which ultimately is the mess of your life unfolding, perfectly, but without your foreknowledge or a map, no matter what kind of an expert planner and list maker you may be. I won't try to wrap this up with a pithy platitude, just that I feel it too, about every other day, and you are not alone in this messy feeling.
Here is a related page from the new book: Contemporary Prayers 2021 edition:
I heat my studio by wood stove, and it's wonderful. It has taken a long time to figure out how to get the space up to temperature when it's only 10 degrees outside, but I have started to get the knack. This makes me very happy because it makes me very warm.
I have a bellows, which is like a handheld pair of lungs, so that I can breath more oxygen onto a fire and get the flames up and the whole thing ablaze better. When I use it however, I find that some ash and soot billows out of the stove, and these tiny, nearly weightless bits of soot float up and all about, and then can end up coming to rest on the surface of one of my works of art.
his is not so cool. It's one thing to have a mess on the floor. It's another to have it floating weightlessly in the air, more like an invisible enemy, like the fog monster in the TV series LOST.
So I share this minor mess with you. It's minor because if I blow on a surface, it removes the soot, and nothing has been permanently marred to date. But, it is a mess for sure, and one that I will develop workarounds for. Likely, from my days on A Street in downtown Boston during the giant dust cloud of the Big Dig in the late 90s, I will cover things with plastic sheeting and all will be well.
On an upnote, I have in recent years made ash based paint, from the ash created while burning about twenty of my old journals. From this I have made some experimental ash paintings like the one below. This might be an avenue I can explore further. For now, it's just soot floating in the air. And this is just how it is sometimes.
Below I share my own background with meditation, as well as some lessons I have learned that may help you avoid some of the sillier sides to the industry they call meditation and mindfulness.
My own experience with meditation (skip this part if you don't care!):
I've always been a bit of a mystic, interested in religious rites and rituals of all kinds. I was curious and a little perplexed by those of the episcopal church I grew up attending socially with my family, tried to make sense of a child's illustrated bible my minister uncle provided upon my request when I was 8, and did a 25 page report on Haitian Voodoo ceremonies for an expository writing class in high school.
When I was in college, I ended up double-majoring in art and religion - the least practical two fields one could choose, and two that really were perfect for me. I chose the religious studies department at Brown University because it was a more 'happening' department at that time than the Anthropology department from what I could tell. I studied East Asian religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, as well as Christianity, and a tiny bit of Judaism and Islam. I wrote my senior thesis on Jonestown. I was interested in the difference between cults and religions, how they form and who decides.
I didn't actually meditate at all until I was out of college for a few years, when a good friend, visiting me in the midst of a painful breakup (mine), showed me how. I spent the next ten years trying to attain sainthood by doing lots of meditation of various forms, having a couple of 'special state' moments, and a couple of cultish sidebars that made me wary of the whole thing and fairly confused. Suffice it to say, I learned a lot about what meditation is not, and what to do if you really want to hurt yourself.
After that, I found Vipassana meditation, also called insight meditation, and I liked it because I felt there were fewer bells and whistles, and less outward forms and rituals to adhere to than my forays into Tibetan and Zen buddhism had yielded. I also did some specialized yoga, went on a pilgrimage to south India, and almost gave up my life to go live at an ashram with a couple of kooks; I am grateful that I ultimately did not!
What all those years of attempting to perfect or fix myself and my troubles through meditation did, is to hone my bullshit meter pretty sharply. Here are my *fairly cynical* (you are forewarned!) takeaways or you might call it
Hannah B’s Rough Guide to meditation:
Meditation is being present for what happens. It is simply a form of attention. Attention is love.
There are many ways to be present, some of them are easier than others, some work better for one person than another.
Meditation can be used to calm and center the mind and body, and can be good for your health. It can also really F up your knees if you think it has to be done cross legged like on the magazine covers.
Meditation doesn't look a certain way. You don't have to buy special stuff or hold painful poses. You do not need to have a top knot or mala beads or a shawl. You can eat meat. You can be in therapy. You can enjoy wearing heels or vote republican. If you find yourself developing a new style or persona around your meditation practice, please notice this: it's got nothing, nothing, to do with actually being present.
Meditation doesn't mean that thinking stops. In my experience, you are not in charge of thoughts: the brain thinks like the nose smells, just doing its job. Thinking is not you but a function of the organ called the brain. The more you believe a thought to be you, and believe whatever ticker-tape thoughts come along, the deeper suffering may ensue.
Meditation is not one-size-fits-all.
If anyone tells you their way of meditating is the right way and only way, please do not believe them!
Everybody responds differently to different types of meditation, based on who they are, their genetics, personalities, learning styles and needs, and there are many options. That being said, I recommend keeping it simple and not getting too fetishy about it.
The whole thing, I’ve found, is an inside out process. How you look is just your ego trying to be perfect and liked. I spent a long time trying to 'do it right' and 'look good' because frankly I didn't like who I was, and I thought if I could be this saintly gal, I would have no flaws and I would finally be loved. What I had backward is that the only place where love is is inside, and the outer situation only reflects whatever that relationship is. If the teacher liked me, then I was ok. If I seemed sagely and selfless, then I was safe. Underneath was a really fraudulent feeling and I didn't think it was ok to have such a feeling, to be confused, to be a giant throbbing mess. But I was.
The good news is that, though you can hurt yourself with this "idea" of yourself as a meditator or somehow in a superior place, eventually your course will self correct, it can't not. It may just take longer if you are trying really really hard.
People often learn how to meditate from other people.
This is a little like the way electricity is conducted through metal. It seems helpful to be in conversation with others. In this day and age, such an interaction can be refreshingly down to earth. In my experience a good teacher makes you feel at ease with things as they are, and yourself as you are. Because in a way this is all a big mirror, if you feel like you are disappointing your teacher or getting corrected a lot, it may be because they are feeling disappointed and critical of themselves. Your boundaries are to be valued and honored, as well as your life experience.
If you feel like there's a level of fakeness in the air at a given meditation center, there probably is. A healthy community that forms around meditation is not hierarchical, does not involve prescribed dress and ways of moving, speaking or talking, or giving up all your cash. It may be you that's feeling fake. So see what it's like if you drop that. If it's not okay, perhaps you're in a cult! They are quite common. If you can't be yourself or make choices for yourself freely in that environment, there may be a problem there.
Sometimes there's this far out thing described as having an enlightenment experience, and somebody who has special status because of theirs. Also, be wary here. If what is being referred to is in the past, is romanticising a certain time or association, or a special state other than the present, including you and your experience, also this is something to avoid getting too enamoured of.
Any teacher sitting in front of you is a human being with their own conditioning, preferences, foibles and imperfections. If this is not acknowledged by the teacher, this is a flag. If they dangle something really special in front of you like waking up, and tell you that it takes a long time, decades of sitting on a meditation cushion, or lots of money and expressions of loyalty to the teacher, please run away! If there is like an inner circle, that too is weird. It is!
Some people may be fully awake and never have formally meditated, and never will. Often people who spend decades on a meditation cushion, like I did, do so because they have trouble getting along in the world, not because they've transcended it. Any claim I make, or another makes, to being superior is hiding a fear of being inferior. We certainly all, as humans, believe and sometimes outwardly make such claims, but remembering this can help you take any leader with a grain of salt. As my friend Brian likes to say, we are all - every last one of us, a bunch of third graders wandering around. No one can claim authority for another when we see this fundamental truth. So be scientific and skeptical. Ask the awkward question. Try it out, but trust your gut.
Just Sitting There
My Philosophy of Prayer
Or see the category: Contemplative Practice
Today is a special day. It is one of those days, like a graduation or a wedding, that has been emblazoned on my brain for about a year, because it is the day that the brand new 2021 edition of Contemporary Prayers to Whatever Works, is officially published!
Because this new title is not self published, the date is significant. With my self published earlier titles,* there wasn’t technically a launch date because I just received the shipment of books and then had to scratch my head about how to not ruin the suspension in my car or pull my back or ruin friendships with requests to help me move book boxes, storing them under my bed and using them as furniture in their own right, as well as how to let people know about them, and how to sell them. This is a lot for one person!
With Tiller Press, a division of Simon & Schuster however, I don’t receive the books, and I don’t sell them either. So what exactly happens today? On this the publication date, the book officially goes on sale, which also means more specifically that the book makes its way today through the distribution chain to those retailers that have ordered it.
Today is the day that my new book hits the shelves! I just held the first copy in my hands, and very relieved that the cover isn’t on upside down or something, and that everything is going as planned.
Also, because I was a one woman operation for so long, the fact that I have had a team of skilled professionals doing their sparkly magic in the background like sharing the title with a sales team, who then shares it with retailers, is all very abstract to me. But it’s darn exciting, because with my last books, there is like, no way to really get them into a distribution stream that isn’t very local and very painstaking to set up. There is a special dread to stopping into a shop to ‘let them know’ about my book.
So even though there is nothing particularly tangible going on over here right now, please celebrate with me! Better yet, please purchase a copy of the book, which you can do here. By so doing you help me be in good standing with the publisher and have the possibility of future dealings with them! All of this, truly is an amazing product of a community of people believing in an artist’s project and supporting it. My intention now is to be of service to anyone and everyone who needs some connection, direction and comfort, with a side of humor, some vibrant new imagery and no BS to tangle with.
Thanks again to all of you that have supported me getting to this moment, this is a celebration I share with you!!
much love, lots of gratitude,
*the original contemporary prayers in 2013, Help me [ ], do the thing. that followed in 2016 and the Elements: a love letter to all things everywhere, 2019
In just under a month, the third prayer book, which is my fourth book, and is also my very first book fully published by someone else (in this case Simon+ Schuster’s Tiller Press) arrives! As if by stork. It has in fact already been printed but I have not yet seen it. This feels a little like when you’ve given birth in the nineteen fifties and you are waiting for a nurse to bring you your child. But instead your child is going to arrive one of these days via the US Mail in 2021.
It’s in a very small way like that. The hard work is done - or is it? The sweat of creating the thing has been wiped from our brows, and now the book exists, they tell me, and I am excited! It will be fully out in the world on March 23rd 2021!
But for now, the news I have is that your pre-ordered book is within reach, and is available for purchase via the retailer of your choice at this link: bit.ly/contemporaryprayers
It is funny trying to get ready for something you haven’t ever experienced. It’s challenging to know what preparation matters, and what is just spinning wheels. Self publishing is a very different beast. A lot more control, a lot clearer information, a much smaller platform, and for me, a little more of knowing what to expect. Which here I do not!
Especially in the last year, I find that I am committed to having a reasonably day, everyday, wherever I have a choice in the matter. There is so much in this year that reveals how little control we have, and with this information, it’s become clear to me that being kind to oneself and to those around one is a priority. So I will plan on sharing with you in small bites, in palatable doses for both of us, with the intention of enriching your life and moment, and showing up to be a steward for what s arriving. Here are a couple of sneak peak inside pages for you, and some prayers to get a sense of it.
Among studio objects, my current studio floor I have a very special appreciation for, I appreciate it almost as much as my very first studio floor, which was a very large swathe of high gloss, light turquoise, painted, wooden floor, painted by someone else before I arrived, in a building which was previously some kind of mill. That floor was in the Fort Point Channel in Downtown Boston, where I had my first ever own living space out of college, which had that lovely floor, lots of sun, lots of space, and is now converted to luxury office space whereas before it was artist studio space, not zoned for residential use.
I loved that floor because the color was light enough and bright enough to be cheerful, and because the space was overheated with steam pipes which made it very warm, and the color was cool. I have many photographs from that period of my life with the background of that floor, held many open studios in the space, and made lots of art upon that floor.
Today, here in my personal studio space in a town that doesn't have any affordable studio space (shame on you Ann Arbor), I have a space in our garage that doesn't leak, doesn't risk my safety to get to late at night, is not a crazy commute (30 feet), and doesn't have a printing press operating below it, or a meth dealership, ghosts, peeping toms, walled off fire exits, slumlords, or homeless squatters next door. All of these examples come from 25 years of studio space shenanigans, and I could quietly die here in this space as a satisfied elderly gal, hopefully not for a long time, and I would be grateful.
This floor is a symbol for me of how I can learn things and improve upon things. It's the second studio floor I have 'built' myself. The first was about a mile away from here, in the Walter St. garage, where I put down some plastic sheeting, some thin foam insulation, and then used half tongue and groove flooring I found, and half gray gym flooring. The gym flooring was great, but after about 2 months, the tongue and groove flooring separated, and the whole thing creaked and pitched like an old seaworthy vessel.
This time, I did not make the same mistake. I chose a space with a level concrete floor to start, carefully researched options, and then got help from my friend Patrick to install first a subfloor with little rubber feet, and then I put in (by myself which was truly crazy and not smart but it went ok) a carpenter grade plywood floor, and painted it Alpaca. I hurt my knees and shoulder a bit, and did a few unsafe moves with the circular saw, but The two things a love about this floor are that it is level, screwed in place, has air circulating properly underneath it, and has a little bounce under your step like an interior floor. These are all successes. This is the subfloor, and part of the finished floor before painting.
I chose to paint the floor because I didn't want to feel like I had to treat the wood preciously. My studio floors get very grimey and very droplet covered and covered with pencil shavings, and now bits of ash and charcoal.
I chose this warm, earthy version of an off white/gray called Alpaca because I wanted the space to feel like a light box. It does! However, it really accentuates how much of a pigpen I am, and the fact that I have never tended well to floors.
So I try to sweep, I have a swiffer hack that allows me to mop up fairly easily, and I just hope when people pop in they look up at the walls and windows and me, and not down at the layers of floor grime. Eventually, I can repaint it. Once I run out of alpaca, I can try another hue.
Hannah, why prayer?
When I share about one of the prayer books, this is one of the questions that comes up. Why did I write these books in the first place? Prayer was not a regular part of my life growing up, and nobody really modeled it for me. I was raised in an Episcopal church, the Easter and Christmas kind of attendance, where it was more social and obligatory than in any way personal. Church was a place where my mother got support and childcare when she was single, working, and struggling. Church was a place where I remember the toys in the daycare area and the beef broth scalding my tongue after the service. There were a couple of nice prayers, but the repetition en masse felt like I was in an army or something, and I was proving my allegiance for my peers, not in any kind of personal or conscious contact with anything.
I came across a more practical form of prayer from several close mentors I had in my twenties and thirties. I learned about things like a prayer for fear and a prayer for when you're pissed off at someone. I also learned there about laying off the whole 'what is God' type of conversation, as less important than actually being in some kind of constructive action, when the alternative is more suffering, conflict and resentment.
The prayer books I've written do not use a word like 'god,' which I see as the ultimate placeholder word, and instead use a form that is abstract, in other words, it doesn't look like anything specific, and that changes on every page and is part of the sentence. *
Why did you use a symbol instead of the word 'god' in your books? I did this because I actually don't know what it is that I'm praying to. I have no idea. I used to have lots and lots of ideas, studying religion and art at Brown University, but I had no experience of prayer, connecting, or feeling connected to speak of. Just a lot of thoughts and ideas about me and my beliefs. That didn't help in any way. Prayer itself has been incredibly helpful once I got desperate enough to actually use it.
Prayer for me is a kind of gesture that you make. It's a kind of connecting, like when the Buddha touched the earth when Mara was getting all up in his grill, or when a dog comes up for a stroke on the muzzle. It's an act of going into relationship. The weird part is, you can, in my experience only learn what you are going into relationship with by trying it out and seeing what happens. Testing the hypothesis in other words.
The issue that I find with religious forms of authority is that they describe something ineffable and then we're dealing with third hand information, and no personal experience whatever.
Why do you use the form of relationship like in a me and you kind of way, if you don't know what you are praying to? If I may be praying to Gravity, or the Universe, why am I using interpersonal language?
I use this language because it's how I as a human being am wired. I am wired for relationship. For a me and you kind of equation. So the you in this equation becomes anything and everything, when instead of a word it becomes an abstract form.
Why is there a picture instead of a word in your book of prayer? How did that idea come about?
I am an visual artist and also have a background in design. At one point I took Edward Tufte's course on the design of visual information and I learned about Galileo and the way he notated his observations of planets and their travel through the night sky. He used small pictograms or of planets right in a sentence, like symbols in a math equation, instead of a name for it.
This really stuck with me. (The image above is a screenshot from Edward Tufte's website). This is what inspired the use of an image in each prayer, rather than a blank or a word. Also, it was the only way I would ever write a book of prayer, because I strongly feel that every one of us has our own conception of whatever the shared ‘god’ is, even if we all belong to the same spiritual or religious or yogic organization. There is literally no way we all have the same feeling, image, or idea, even if the culture is extremely specific about the details. Everyone is doing some kind of translation process whenever language is used, to make sense of and meaning out of what is shared, just like you are doing while reading here. That I feel is no different for shared spiritual, philosophic or religious beliefs and ideas.
Objects are all about you. They seem inert, but each has a special character, one that you may be fond of, may not ever think about, or one that inspires aversion or other negative qualities.
I am sitting in my studio right now, and all about me are many objects. There is nothing at all unusual about this situation, and yet perhaps turning attention towards objects is a little bit unusual. I would like to do this now. Similar to the cursory way that in goodnight moon, even the bowl of mush and the spoon whisper 'hush'.
There is nothing special or unusual about 99.9% of the objects in this studio, but I want to share about them with you for a couple of reasons. 1) Because noticing what is around me helps me to appreciate and see them more clearly, perhaps care for them better and to enjoy them more. 2) Because I wrote a book whose subtitle is A love letter to all things everywhere, a book about the Elements, which reveals in its pages the very direct way that we are made of the same set of 100 or so ingredients as the objects we live with. So, in a way sharing about the objects in my studio is a way of introducing you to your cousins. 3) Sometimes I notice that people are curious about the hashtag of studio life, and this is a way of sharing a little bit more intimately about what goes on in here.
I will begin with the pink tub.
The pink tub is very very bubblygum pink. It appears at one point to been a part of a child's playroom organizational system. I can't remember where it came from. I likely picked it up off some curb on a side street somewhere. I believe I have only had it since I moved to Michigan in 2017.
In October of that year, I began using a one car garage as my studio, which I insulated and drywalled and laid some rickety found flooring down on. It had no running water. At first I was bringing in my inky, painty brushes to our house on the same property, and running them under the water, but then I realized that this is bad for the watershed, because those chemicals end up in it, leeching down into the rivers and lakes that we so abuse. So, instead, for both that reason and because it was a lot easier, I began just dumping my dirty water into the pink tub.
How it works, is that when I want to paint with water soluble paints like acrylic, I pour water from gallon jugs into a little bowl, clean my brushes and water down my ink and paints with it, and when I'm done I rinse out the extra pigment from the brushes in that little bowl, dry off the brushes (or bring them inside if further cleaning is needed), and then wipe down the interior of the bowl with a paper towel.
Every time I do this, the tub water gets a new infusion of a dark, muddy, often bluish gray tone. Bluish because apparently, these days I'm using a lot of blues.
This tub is not a color I love, it feels very very much like a giant lozenge of bubble gum, and I don't love having this color popping out in the middle of the otherwise muted space. I like the artwork to be the color to which the eye is drawn. However, I have started using it, and perhaps due to inertia, it's what I'm working with for now.
While my current studio was in build out mode last summer (2020), pink tub was in the basement, empty but for a dried 'waterline' of murky gray bluish paint stain about 5 inches up the sides. For a while it held quart cans of stain. I suppose I could've gotten rid of it then, but now I'm back in the studio and have begun again to us it as described above. Eventually I may replace it with something less brazen, but there is also benefit of the bright color, in that it shouts caution at me, lest I kick it over or something, by being so very pink.
Drop the Props and Poses
There is no need to look or feel a certain way to engage meditation. You don't need an expensive pillow or to be flexible or to be able to sit on the floor. Take care of your body. Sometimes having low back support in a chair, or a little cushion to lift up you butt, helps the spine to naturally be relaxed and fairly upright, which allows a nice free flow of energy throughout your body. This helps parts of it not fall asleep and maybe helps you stay awake and be more comfortable.
Establishing a little space
By this I mean some internal space. Please don't try to get yourself to stop thinking. One way is to notice the breath, or perhaps notice sounds in the environment, that kind of a simple focus for a few minutes can help you establish a little internal ease and quiet. There are lots of ways to do this. Some people call it a concentration practice: just pick some version that feels easy and relatively natural for you, to establish this kind of quiet.
Widening the Field
After you establish a little steadiness as explained above, you can then set about to broaden your focus to include whatever happens to be coming up in your experience. This includes physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, sounds, tastes, temperature, areas of contraction, neutrality and density.
This isn't always easy, depending on what emotions might be present, but I strongly recommend looking at whatever comes up as human, natural and ultimately, just passing through, like a bird alighting on a branch outside your window. It might be a noisy flock of house sparrows or a huge coven of crows that hangs out for a while, or a buzzard looming, but it's just coming and going, and like a birdwatcher or even the welcoming backyard itself, recognize that it's not your doing, not your fault, and whatever kind of shitty bird alights, see it as just a visitor to be curious about and open to.
Drop the idea of practice or of yourself practicing
At some point, if and when things feel pretty peaceful, drop any kind of practice and just hang out. No one doing anything. Be the yard. Be the field. Without doing it.
Whatever happens, can you hang out with it? If not, can you hang out with what that's like?
When suffering, for example if the answer to the above two questions is No and Absolutely Not, see if you can sit with the one in pain, like a friend would, someone who loved you.
When, if you are sitting in formal meditation, the timer goes off or you finish the formal part, see if you can carry that same simple sense of observation with you into the day - no need again to look or feel a certain way, in fact better if you don't try to steer or manage that, just see what is happening now. And what about now? Who is here? What's present? those are a few questions you can play with to re acquaint yourself at intervals throughout the day.
Let it be a mess.
Rarely as humans are we all dialed in and buttoned up. Especially if we feel compelled to meditate, or are stopping to notice what's underneath all of the activity and motion, there are messy things to encounter. Unruly feelings, blotchy skin and stuffed up noses, runaway radio station brain activity, bodies that keep trying to get comfortable,or even songs that stick in the head and sabotage that nice mellow feeling we were after. That's to be expected. Please don't expect otherwise. Unless you are another form of life from human, there will be the smelly and the ungainly. Invite that in too.
A note about teachers
If you learn from someone else, please be sure they are not claiming perfection, please be sure to trust your own intuition if things feel off. Ultimately what you are doing when you meditate is paying attention to what is happening. Please let that be from the inside out, and not something someone else controls from outside. The best teachers give you their experience of how to unlock your own freedoms, your own insights, your own guidance. They should not at any point need you to do anything or respond any kind of way. Above all trust your own intuitive response.
On the verge of a brand new edition of Contemporary Prayers coming out on March 23 2021, it seems relevant to share my general experience with a philosophy of prayer. In related posts (upcoming!) I share about why prayer in the first place, about the “God” word and how it seems to me.
Of course, this is a philosophy of one, and whenever I am sharing such things, it is only for you to investigate and see for yourself. That’s kind of the point of the prayer books in a way, is to connect directly, see what happens for you, tweak it, leave it be, and know what your own response is.*
Here are seven ways that I find prayer works effectively
1.Don’t sugar coat a prayer: If you speak with a flourish because it’s who you are, that’s how I have found it best to pray: in your own language, and without filagree that isn’t genuine.
I’ve found my own language is a little less floral, and as a result, the relationship is also easier. Just think about other relationships and the language you use with the people closest to you. If it’s intimate, the way you speak is likely genuine and honest.
2. Bring especially, the petty stuff to prayer: It’s the petty stuff that sometimes really gets me. That’s the stuff that can grab hold of my system and not let go. So that’s the stuff I particularly set down through prayer. That’s how it feels. It’s like setting something down. That’s why in my first book, there are prayers about finding keys and turning down the heat. Sometimes we humans need help making basic decisions or remembering basic things.
I also find that when I do use these kinds of ‘set down’ prayers, I find that I don’t need to ‘hold’ the worry or the fear. I do remember, I do turn and pick up that book and lo, the keys are there underneath the book when I’ve asked for help in prayer with these details. That’s the only reason that I have shared these prayers. They have made things much easier and less thought-filled, created space for me to focus on what feels more important, and they have worked.
3. There’s no need for spiritual experience or special state to pray. What I mean by this is that, if I’m full of fear and I just state that I’m full of fear, it might not make the fear go away at that moment, I might not feel suddenly brave and confident, but it helps me to step back and to connect, and is the opening for a shift to occur. If I am in pain and just say ‘I am in pain!’ in the form of a prayer, or even just sharing with a trusted friend, that too is an honest offering, and I don’t have to look or feel any different than I do.
4. Praying for one specific outcome like Please make Joey get the measles, or Please make it rain so that I don’t have to go to that picnic, doesn't work. It is limited in imagination to what I can dream up for one thing, it’s trying to run the whole show for another. In essence, it’s more controlling than collaborative. It helps to drop the related objects: the people places and things in the situation, and then to see what’s going on underneath for you. Whatever is discovered, make that as an offering, or ask for another way of seeing.
Any kind of prayer however, is ultimately OK however, because its the act of connecting, of remembering that we are not separate, that seems to be the main point.
5. Asking ‘why’ gets you crickets. It’s a little like asking for very specifc and complex outcomes in prayer; asking ‘why’ is kind of a demand. Why did this happen. Why are you punishing me? that one’s an accusation and comes with a built in story: that you are being punished. I once got a strong intuition that really, it’s none of my busness why. I am not privy to the back room workings of the cosmos. I am making a kind of offering in prayer, of what’s here, what feels challenging. Asking Why is demanding an explanation, like you might with a naughty child. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get mad.
6. Offering is anger, rage, giving up, complete resistance or throw-down is a lovely, honest and intimate way to pray. That’s why I include prayers with swears in them - that’s how I’ve found prayer works. It’s part of the honesty thing. I think, as a sidebar, we’ve been told that we are supposed to act and look a certain way to be spiritual or religious. This is something I enthusiastically avoid. I once dropped some books off at a well known retreat center and there was so much soft toned namastaying going on, my bullshit meter was at 11. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough! There are many different flavors and styles of spiritual or religious BS, mixed in with genuine sincerity.
Strange as it may sound, the few times I have truly let my honest rage and despair flow, directing it straight to * and not to the people I felt were involved, or toward myself, I felt, palpably, when the dust settled, a deep and loving response. The offering is the rage, it’s taking it to the source, rather than dumping it on other fallible humans also struggling.
7. It helps if I’ve said prayers at some earlier point, to look back and see how things went, with curiosity. How did it go? You might call this a kind of gratitude practice. Here’s *, where I felt your presence in the day. That way you can see more clearly for yourself if the prayers had any effect, and you can express your awareness of and appreciation for what you’d like more of.
The word God makes a lot of people flinch. It makes other people gush. It’s loaded, similar to the word Art. So many many ways that people strike the lightning rod of the word. So I thought it would be worth sharing directly what my own relationship is to the word God.
For me the word God is the ultimate placeholder. It means something like [ ], or that thing we don't know how to describe. Or that thing that you and I want to be able to talk about but may have a completely different relationship to - like everything, but even more so. And so a symbol has been placed on it (like everything but even more so!). And that symbol has become synonymous with it, like the way the dollar bill is a symbol of money that's become synonymous for all practical purposes with money itself and used as such.
The word God is used openly in the monotheistic religions. The big ones: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In certain instances within these three religions - especially the first two - God is sometimes taken to be a guy in the sky: Skygod. Occasionally people go mad and start wars over their brand of Skygod over yours. It gets very literal when you believe in your symbols as actual things, and as superior to the symbols of others.
I sometimes do use the placeholder word God in prayer. For me, it's just the nickname for the very situation, the arising sensory input, the answer to the human brain's endless rant - something outside myself that isn't the little me, with whom to lay a burden down.
As I've said before, there is, as a result of this prayer activity, a deepening experience of this relationship, this contact, and less and less of a way that the brain and language can accurately pin it down, describe it or explain it. It's dynamic, it keeps changing and deepening, in a way becoming more of the foreground.
If you are yourself a deep skeptic, this is good! Use your scientific bent to test it out. Try out a prayer from the book. See if you get any juice from it. Not necessarily in the moment, but in the way things play out in the larger situation, as you look back on the day. If you scoff-pray, I don't know how much you'll get out of the exercise. Perhaps you will feel right. Which is it's own kind of booby prize. But if you try it with any degree of openness or curiosity, you might find out what, if anything about it, is useful, practically speaking, to you.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.