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Esteemed Reader: The Painting is Finished

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Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

Shards of sunlight swirled around the kitchen table, refracted by a crystal hanging from a string inside the window. Like daytime fireflies, the light-specks moved across the walls and faces of two young children sitting in chairs in front of watercolor paintings, brushes in hand.

The boys, my sons, then about 4 and 6, had been working with quiet reverence for what felt like a long time. The silence was alive with their focus on painting.

"I need another piece of paper," the older boy announced.

Bringing him a blank sheet, I looked at his completed painting. It was simple and elegant, expressive with abundant negative space, and replete with a selectively chosen colors.

"This painting is really beautiful!" I said.

Hearing this, the younger boy stood up and came over to look. He stared at it for a moment, and then pulled out his paintbrush and with kung-fu quickness laid a thick lightning bolt of red paint across the perfectly composed painting.

"No..." I cried, horrified. "Don't do that to your brother's painting!"

I was sad to see the masterwork marred, but the older boy quickly spoke up.

"It's all right, dad," he said, with a calm assurance. "It's all right. The painting is already finished."

I looked at him, at the painting, at his brother, my mind so blown I had to sit down as the wisdom of his words sunk in.

"It's all right, dad, the painting is finished."

For the boy, there was not a hint of attachment to the result of his work. The whole value was in the process of creation, the experience itself. His unmitigated engagement with the creative event allowed him first of all to recognize when it was complete, and once complete, to let it go and move on to the next creative event.

I felt like Prince Wen Hui, in Chuang Tzu's poem "Cutting Up an Ox", in which the prince, after watching the deft artistry of his butcher proclaims "This is it! My cook has shown me how I ought to live my own life!" *

It shocked me into see how much I rely on objects—things, people, experiences—to evoke a feeling of fullness in my inner life.

In this direction, the above quoted bible passage feels like a precise and practical formula.

The first step is to "be converted," which is to change our center of gravity from outward to inward; to loosen the attachment to the objects that evoke a sense of meaning and inner qualities, and begin to recognize that it is the inner experience of qualities in themselves that has the greater reality.

Our education and habits lead to a dogmatic belief in objects as the cause of our inner life. Be they people, things, or experiences, we believe they produce the spectrum of states we find pleasing, meaningful, unpleasant, or banal. Rarely do we step back and recognize that the vast vocabulary of inner qualities is already present and available irregardless of their apparent causes.

To "be converted" is to recognize that the inner life is not necessarily tethered to outer experiences, to glimpse actual inner freedom. This glimpse can open the possibility of working in the inner life like a secret garden, where a cornucopia of qualities can be tended, nourished, and grown.

A sense of lightness and freedom accompanies this turn from outward to inward orientation. Its movement from one experience to another is nimble, creative, playful—"as little children"—the second step in the formula. Like the child who has no attachment to the outward result of his work once it is "finished," we can live without dragging detritus from one experience into the next, instead finding that abundance is already alive and present in our thoughts, feelings, creativity, power, and in the unfolding process of consciousness itself.

Finally, once these prerequisites are met, there is Heaven, a world beyond even the paradise of child-mind; a world of perfection and impeccability; a world we can't conceive of at all from the perspective of object relations because it is singular.

Someone called Jesus, evidently a dervish teacher of a couple thousand years ago, spoke about conversion. I say Jesus was a dervish because they are masters of whirling, or as they call it, the turn. The etymological meaning of "conversion" is to turn around (from com- "together" + vertere "to turn").

We are tyrannized by objects, and our belief that manipulating them is the key to satisfaction and happiness is destroying our host organism of earth and the true human legacy.

This is a call for revolution—to turn around in ourselves, revolve around Truth—and inhabit the already abundant richness of the real world.

*The Way of Chuang Tzu, translated by Thomas Merton

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