Sumi Painting, Chi, Creativity and the Spirit

 

In the past year or two I have been digging into my artistic side by taking watercolor classes. Last fall, I signed up for a workshop called “Sumi and Soul” by Yuming Zhu, a professional artist who was born in China and currently lives in Seattle, Washington. I received so much from the experience that I signed up for another two-day workshop this spring with the same teacher.

Artist Yuming Zhu at Sumi painting workshop, 2011, Bloomington, MN--photo by Julie McCarty

Painting in the Chinese or Japanese way is quite different from the European style. In sumi painting, one holds the brush differently, and uses materials that more closely resemble ink and tissue paper than oils and canvas. Rather than painting with just your hand or arm, it is more as if your whole body is painting, from your own “center of gravity” someplace deep in your body. The philosophical or spiritual underpinnings are different as well, something the teacher mentioned in a gentle way, here and there, without harping or preaching.

Julie trying out Sumi painting at Yuming Zhu's workshop at the Bloomington Art Center in Minnesota--2011

My experience of the workshops with Yuming was very positive. As a writer, I am often too tense or perfectionist, which blocks the flow of words onto the paper. The Sumi workshop helped me to view my writing in a different way, to open up myself to letting the creativity flow more freely without fear of making “mistakes.” This fear is a real block to creativity, and “Mary Francis” (what I call the “good little Catholic girl” inside me) needs to let go of these fears.

 One of the many things I learned about in this workshop was the Chinese concept of chi, a word that means something like “energy” or “life force” in English. Here’s what About.com says about chi:

Ch’i (also spelled Chi or Qi) is a fundamental concept in Chinese philosophy and culture. Found in Chinese traditional religion but especially Taoism, Ch’i literally means “air” or “breath,” but as a concept it refers to the energy flow or life force that is said to pervade all things. (Read more here or also here.)

On the second day of Yuming Zhu's workshop, students arrived with energy--photo by Julie McCarty, 2011

The concept of chi intrigues me. Because I follow Christ, the idea of chi made me think of the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit moves, creates, and breathes in us. In fact, in the original bible languages, the word “spirit” is the same is the word “breath.” It was “spirit” that God “breathed” into the first human in one biblical Creation story.

 
Too often, Christians think of God as rigid, stable, unchanging–and I’m sure there is certainly the element of stability and permanence in the best sense in the Divine Being we Westerners call “God.” I don’t deny that truth. However, on the other hand, the Spirit is called Creator Spiritus, the divine Spirit that Genesis tells us “hovered over the waters” during the creation of the cosmos. This Spirit of God is alive, dynamic, moving, active. Jesus compared the Spirit to the wind: you do not see it, or where it is going, but you know it it there.
Yuming Zhu's painting demo, Bloomington Art Center workshop, Spring, 2011--photo by Julie McCarty
I wonder what would happen if Christians of today took Creator Spirit seriously, that person of God known for movement, action, creativity, and breath. Would the Creative Spirit bring about something new? Something beautiful? Something prophetic, that is revealing truth and compassion?

I wonder, dear reader, what good things might the chi within you or me, our inner energy, want to create today? What newness of life might the Spirit of God want us to bring to birth this week, this year? How might we live the Resurrection of Christ, that image of energy, bursting out of the tomb, right here, right now in this moment?

Note: To view artwork by Yuming Zhu or find workshops, visit his website http://www.yumingfineart.com/about.htm  or on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/mypainting

Skillful Speech–Part 2: Insights from Buddhism

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.                –Fourth Mindfulness Training*

In “Brutally Yours, Bob Hartley,” an old episode of The Bob Newhart Show, psychologist Bob Hartley urges clients Mr. Carlin and Michelle to be more honest and open with their feelings. During the conversation, Bob hides his true feelings about his secretary leaving work early and the clients challenge him to practice what he preaches. As the show progresses, Mr. Carlin and Michelle make a game out of hurling insults at other people, while at home Bob nearly ruins a budding friendship in his overzealous quest for total honesty. In the end, it is agreed by all that some things are better left unsaid.

The episode illustrates in a humorous manner just how difficult it can be to be truthful and yet do it in a way that does not unnecessarily hurt another. In my last post, I wrote a few things that Jesus had to say about the right use of speech. This week, I’ve been reading about the idea of Right Speech in Buddhism. (I’m not a Buddhist and I don’t know much about the Buddhist path, but I think that Buddhism offers some insights on the topic of how to speak and listen with compassion.)  

In his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh devotes an entire chapter to Right Speech. Here are some of my notes from reading his explanation of Right Speech:   

  • Being truthful is basic to Right Speech.
  • Much suffering is caused in this world by people who are simply not paying attention to what they say and how they say it. Our words have the potential to add to the suffering of others, or to alleviate their pain. (The Buddhist practitioner seeks to alleviate the suffering of others.)
  • Right Speech means “not speaking with a forked tongue.” That is, do not tell one person one thing and another person a different thing. It is fine to use different words, examples, or images in explaining something to help others understand, but it is not truthful to invent different “truths” for various people.
  • Right Speech means not speaking cruelly. “We don’t shout, slander, curse, encourage suffering, or create hatred.” This can be challenging even for people of good will, he writes, but because words are powerful, we must avoid vicious speech.
  • Right Speech also means that we should not exaggerate or embellish what we have seen or heard. “We don’t dramatize unnecessarily, making things sound better, worse, or more extreme than they actually are. If someone is a little irritated, we don’t say that he is furious.”
  • Right speech involves deep listening, something very needed today. When we listen with an open heart, calmly and without judging others, we may actually reduce their suffering. (What a great gift to give another!)
  •  Hanh writes: “Letter writing is a form of speech. A letter can sometimes be safer than speaking, because there is time for you to read what you have written before sending it. . . If any phrase can be misunderstood or upsetting [to the other person], rewrite it.”  This can be adapted in our own time for the social media by using the “save the draft” feature and reviewing what we have written at a later time, when we aren’t angry or upset, before hitting “send.”

 When it comes to integrating Right Speech into our everyday lives, Thich Nhat Hanh offers a gatha (meditation verse):

Words can travel thousands of miles.
May my words create mutual understanding and love.
May they be as beautiful as gems,
as lovely as flowers.  (page 92)
 

The author suggests writing this saying on paper and placing it by the telephone, to recite just before making a phone call. Today, we can adapt this practice by putting this verse near our computer screens as a reminder of the ways of Right Speech.  

There is much more that could be explored about Right Speech, but I will leave you to ponder these ideas for now. If you are like me, there is plenty in just these few points to challenge my own ways of communicating with others.

One final thought: May someone shower you today with compassionate words and empathetic listening, and may you find a skillful way to do the same for someone else. Until next time, Amen!  

(Skillful Speech, Part One contains insights from Christ about right speech.)

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*Quoted in Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (NY: Broadway Books, 1999), page 84.