Getting Outside Ourselves

We think about life in terms of a subject who acts, and an object that is acted upon. So, if there is an artist in her studio, we think and speak with the artist as the active subject, and the paint, brushes and canvas as the still, inert objects being acted upon. We are inclined to say that the painter uses paint and canvas to express herself, but is that quite the case? It doesn’t seem like she actually expresses, meaning ‘push outwards’ onto a canvas something that was already fully formed inside of her mind. Rather, she would have started with an idea, and as she began painting, saw ways in which what was in front of her was similar to her idea and what was different and from this new point, rethinks what she wishes to paint and proceeds. Then, she yet again sees how what is in front of her is similar and different to what she has in her mind and paints proceeding from this point. There is a creative process of back and forth. There is not a subject acting upon an object but a creative process whereby she acts and reacts with the paint, brushes and canvas.

There is another point to be made that goes beyond similarities and differences. It is that as the painter creates her art, it must be in accordance with the materials. As she paints she has to work with the limits of her medium. She can only paint within a certain frame (the size of the canvas) and using certain colours (depending on what base she is using). She cannot paint whatever she wants, however she wants, but must paint within the limits of her tools and medium. The point is that she does not act upon the things around her, but with them.

A musician does not express themselves any more than the painter does. The instrument shapes the musician (who must learn to purse their lips in a particular way to hit the right note, or perform certain motions with their fingers to achieve the right combinations of sounds) as much as the musician shapes the sounds. There is a back and forth, a process, a reciprocation.

You cannot make a piano sound like a violin, or play piano simply by moving your fingers very fast. The musician must, to a certain extent, allow the instrument itself to determine how it should be played. A good musician does not play the instrument, but plays with it.

A gardener, if they wish to have any success, must work with their garden, rather than upon. For it is the case that one cannot yell at broccoli to grow, or beat lavender into submission and make it bloom. A good gardener understands they must work with the garden. You need to pay attention to what nutrients are needed, how much sun and water are required, and whether the time of year is right. The garden is a joint project between equals, the gardener who cultivates, and the garden which grows. A gardener who tries to force a plant to bloom is as ridiculous as a musician who thinks blowing harder into the trumpet will produce a melody.

The painter, musician and gardener (to which we may also add the parent, friend, doctor, scientist and chef) approach their craft masterfully when they understand the principle at the root of all relationship: it is not about you. It is about so much more than you. It is about the creative unfolding of life. When we step outside of ourselves, when we no longer reduce life to the matrix of the I and me, something magical happens; we create in concert with others and end up becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves. A parent is enlarged by their child, a painter by their painting, and a gardener by what they grow. The paradox is that by leaving ourselves behind, we end up becoming much more than we were.

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