Let your Life Be a Work of Art

“Make your lives a masterpiece, you only get one canvas.”–E. A. Bucchianeri, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly

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I recently came across the line, “Let your life be a work of art.”  These words were spoken by the late Thich Nhat Hanh, and they inspired me to reflect upon their deeper meaning.  As often happens, I could feel the tendrils of my brain entwining around this notion and exploring all of its complexities.  In fact, the next day, I found myself in meditation asking myself how to “live artfully” and contribute more beauty to the world.

It seems to me that all lives are pregnant with possible ways to share unique artistry with others. While I know, as Bucchianeri once wrote, we only get one life canvas, I’d like to think, that with the gift of each new day, we are each bequeathed a new canvas on which to create. Therefore, how do we bring about awareness and intention to our daily opportunity to create quality life art? 

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I think many great religious and thought leaders would point to nourishing your innerworld as a start. Initially this may sound self-centered.  However, I am reminded of the repeated directive instructing passengers, when flying on an airline, “put the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping others.”  This is because you cannot be of assistance to another person, if you don’t have a one true source for life. 

Therefore, it makes sense to foster a rich, more faith-filled inner life in order to create a more inspired and productive outer life.  Personally, I know when I mindfully start my day with time set aside for thoughtful devotion and contemplation, my actions are apt to be more harmonious and positive with others.  In fact, I find that if my inner world is unclouded, my actions and choices are more thoughtful and in better service to others.  

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That said, I don’t think it’s a linear or perfect process, but a gentle ebb and flow. When we seek, pray, read, meditate, and/or focus upon living more peacefully, as described in most major religions, we can then draw from a wellspring of faith, purposely seeking guidance for serving others.  However, that doesn’t mean we always remember to do that.  Mistakes, stress, anxiety, emotional overload, and so forth, can take us off our A-game for a span of time, but like a swing responding to gravity, our faith can draw us back to the path. 

The more we return to cultivating that inner-world, the more we begin to live in closer alignment with our higher purpose.  Life, it seems, begins to evolve and flow with greater ease, enhancing our ability to constructively contribute to the world and others around us. The greater the sense of ease, the less resistance and/or friction in life, thereby allowing for more effective and productive communication and actions.  Thus, the “art” we hope to create in life, organically continues to evolve and spread to others.  

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 In fact, at least based upon my current reflections on the subject, it seems to me, the more we get clear in our inner world, the more we learn to accept responsibility for our own actions and choices.  As we assume more responsibility for our own actions, we can begin to also foster more responsible reactions as well.  In fact, when our reactions become more moderated and considered, the more effectively we can generate a sense of calm, creating less distress in our own lives and the lives of those around us. 

Of course, writing about “life as art” is easier said than done. Nonetheless, I do believe it is worth trying. As with any work of art, the process is often filled with struggle, but as any artist can tell you, the process of creation can often be messy and imperfect.  Therefore, learning to artfully live with more intentionality and tempered reactivity is a process also permeated with struggle as it takes awareness, time, and a large quantity of patience with self and those around us. 

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However, by repeatedly returning to the cultivation of our inner life, our hearts and minds are gently reminded to remain in alignment with the higher purpose of our faith.  Even after those less-than-stellar days, that we all experience, we can return to our practice and consciously redirect.  In the end, this not only benefits you, but others also profit by your choices, and even more so, by your example.  This give and take of constructive and purposeful living creates a dynamic design of a colorful criss-cross of actions and interactions.

Admiring the beauty of a large pot of flowers, vincas, on my front porch brought me full circle in this “living artfully” thought exploration.  The flowers began as four tiny individual plants. In spite of all the crazy weather, the vincas have multiplied ten-fold, it seems, with eye popping color. The vincas are a reminder that our lives can flourish in similar fashion. 

Our Creator designed us with the ability to withstand dry times, heavy rains, and even stormy seasons. However, the more often we return to nurturing our inner world, the better able our True Source can work through us. By more frequently listening and surrendering to that deeper voice of God, the more we allow our lives to become the design of the Creator’s hands; and like the vincas on my porch, our lives can become unique and colorful works of art to which Hanh encouraged so many years ago. 

By creating the practice of cultivating our inner world, we can become aligned with our higher purpose.  Through the ebb and flow of practice, we learn to accept responsibility for actions, consider our reactions, and allow the "art" of our life to flow with greater ease.
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Choose Joy

Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.  We cannot cure the world of sorrow, but we can choose to live in joy.–Joseph Campbell

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There is a documentary about a Holocaust survivor named Gerda Weissmann Klein that I have watched on several occasions with students.  Her story is, like many Holocaust survivor stories, one of inspiration, hope, and even joy.  One of the lines that often comes back to me is when Weissmann Klein specifically addresses how she survived a death march towards the end of World War II.  Despite the fact this march occurred during the height of a brutally harsh winter, Wiessmann Klein was able to survive for a number of reasons, one of which included her ability to “occupy her mind.”

In simple terms, Weissmann Klein was able to take her mind’s focus off the cruel conditions around her.  Rather than brood over the extreme cold, her hunger, her fatigue or any other legitimate complaint, she colorfully described her intentional deliberations that could last all day, such as spending an entire day planning out her next birthday party, even though she had not been able to have one since the Nazi occupation.  However, it wasn’t so much the what of her thoughts, but the fact that she was able to focus/distract her mind away from the pain/discomfort that naturally accompanied her situation.  Instead she intentionally directed her attention towards ideas/notions/thoughts that safely allowed her to “escape” and feel some sense of happiness if only cerebrally.  It is this human ability to occupy one’s mind, or shift the mind’s attention/perspective, that is a powerful take-away from Weissmannn Klein’s story, and I believe is transferable to other, much less brutal situations.   

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Given the news, the pandemic, the  major weather events, and all of the sobering occurrences from the past few years, it is easy to allow our mind to focus on the what-is-wrong-in-the-world, whether you are looking at the big picture or sometimes even your own personal circumstances. I know I can easily get wrapped up in the negative and get a full-steam-on gripe session with the best of them.  On one hand, I know it can be beneficial to get the negativity off-your-chest; on the other hand, I also know that there is danger in dwelling or focusing on it for too long–at least for me.

In a similar manner, I’ve noticed that both positivity and negativity are contagious within myself and among others. If I enter work feeling grumpy, put-off, or focused on some negative happening, I tend to attract and may even catch myself seeking out negativity.  It’s not per se always a conscious choice, it just seems to happen that way.  As soon as I recognize it, I feel badly for having given that gray cloud permission to come along for a ride.  The real danger, it seems to me, is when negativity is left unaddressed.

Negative mindsets have a tendency to spiral out of control.  It may start with something as simple as an accidental spill or mess that throws off the morning routine, followed up by that s-l-o-w driver on the morning commute while listening to frustrating news on the radio.  This may then turn into a later than planned arrival at work, followed by unhappy/unpleasant conversation, followed by a work-related problem in need of addressing for uptenth time, and by the time lunch arrives–which is often a working lunch–negativity can feel as if it is bursting at the seams.  

I think Ms. Weissmann Klein was onto something when it comes to not defaulting to the negative. We must actively and intentionally teach our mind to choose joy.  No, it’s not easy, and yes, it sounds cliché.  However, I do believe that we have a choice of how we respond to our circumstances, but like all skills, it takes practice and thought.

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I think the lyrics to a King and Country song entitled, “Joy,” best encapsulates this thought.  It is oh-so-easy to focus on all of those nightly news headlines that vie for our attention.  Easier still, is to become wrapped up in our personal headlines: illness, death, divorce, finances, job loss/stress, future uncertainties and so forth.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught myself in the woe-is-me mind story; it’s so darn easy to do.  Here is what I am learning when I catch myself having fallen prey to pessimism.

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy. –Thich Nhat Hanh

Believe it or not, the simple act of smiling can be a lightswitch for our mindset.  I first discovered this through running, but I find it just as helpful in most other situations.  Whether it’s my legs and calves aching from the exertion of exercise, or it’s my shoulders and neck tightening in reaction to stress, as soon as I catch myself responding negatively to stress–to the degree possible–I focus on deeper breathing, relaxing the tightened areas, and adding a smile.  I smile at the sense of accomplishment I will feel once I have completed the goal; smile at the fact I am proud of myself for having caught myself slipping into negativity; smile at the fact that my body still has the ability to exercise, work, read–whatever. All of which leads to more smiling because, well, I am smiling–which leads to the release of feel-good hormones.

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I was talking to a sister recently about how we wake up with the best intentions to remain sunny and positive, and then one thing might set off the day, and BOOM, there goes the mindset.  My husband says, however, that is part of living in faith.  He reminds me that it’s not about perfection, but recognizing your imperfections–your humanity–and then trying again. 

In the words of King and Country, “. . . Oh, hear my prayer tonight, I’m singing to the sky/ Give me strength to raise my voice, let me testify . . . The time has come to make a choice

And I choose joy!

I can’t pretend to choose joy in every moment, nor am I not acknowledging the very realness of life, headlines, personal crises and all.  Nevertheless, even in the bad times, sorrows, and heartbreak and loss, I can choose my response, and I can choose to find at least one reason to smile.  

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Like a Prayer

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”–L. M. Montgomery, Anne of the Green Gables

“Ms. Hill, don’t you like doing healthy stuff like hiking and running?”

The 6th grader looked at me with sincerity written across his face.  He was in my homeroom, the group of students with whom I start and end the school day.  By this point in the school year, I have come to know most of the students in this group fairly well, and this particular young man, in spite of his energetic youthfulness, has an uncommonly thoughtful side.  

The group of boys with whom he was talking and joking around at the end of the day, all turned to look at me.  I affirmed that I did indeed like both of those activities, but that I also enjoyed walking or simply being outside equally as much.

Nodding, seemingly with understanding, the same young man further inquired, prodding as to why I liked being outside.  After pausing to gather my thoughts, I explained that it made me feel happy, at peace, and connected to God. 

“So it’s kinda like a prayer, huh?” 

Out of the mouths of babes, or in this case, a 6th grader . . . 

Then, in typical middle-school fashion, the young man’s conversation quickly pivoted back to his buddies, so I returned to my routine end-of-the day tasks.  However, his words remained with me.  In fact, his words have often returned to me on a number of occasions for the past several weeks, especially during moments when I am out-of-doors. 

Scanning through photos of my recent trip to the Blueridge Parkway as well as past out-of-doors experiences, it is clearly evident from the large number of nature-centric images that I relish time spent outside.  From images of wispy cloud billows to leaf-scattered earthen trails; from layers of cerulean blue mountainous peaks to emerald green moss dressing up a boulder, and a great many variations in between, I have collected hundreds of images of Mother Earth. Nonetheless, my fondness of nature is so much more than taking photographs.

Time spent outside is like pouring soothing salve over my weathered soul.  One deep inhalation of fresh air, and I can instantly feel more calm and grounded.  In fact, I have an overall sense of vigor, not just in my body, but in my mind and soul when I am outside in the natural world.  It is as if my whole being comes alive.  

Therefore, it was no surprise for me to learn that numerous research bodies and scientific communities corroborate my personal experiences with nature.  As I scanned through several research pieces published by well-respected groups such as the American Psychological Association, Yale School of  the Environment, Harvard Health, and Scientific Reports, to name a few, there were some variations as to what defines “nature” and how long one needs to spend time in nature to reap the benefits; however, all pointed to the fact that spending time out-of-doors is overall beneficial to good health and mental well being.  Some of the commonly cited perks of spending time in nature include: improved mood, increased cognitive and memory function, reduced stress levels, improved mental health, boosted immune system, and overall reduction of blood pressure and heart rates.  

While I whole-heartedly appreciate and welcome ALL of those benefits, it has been my experience that there are also other, more ethereal, benefits of spending time in nature.  I find that when I bear witness to the brilliant rise of the sun, gaze upward as sunlight dapples through a canopy of leafy green, or catch sight of sunbeams streaming across dark silhouettes of towering tree trunks, naked in their winter respite, I feel a sense of awe and wonder.  The wide array of colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and the symmetry rivals great artists of our time–our world is a marvel!

The more I observe nature, the more curious and inquisitive I become.  How did all of this happen?  How do I, a person so small and insignificant in the face of all this wonder, fit into the grand scheme of the great I AM?  How am I to comprehend Divine Providence and this wondrous creation called earth?  I have no answers, nor do I feel a need for answers.  Rather I am in a state of being–being appreciative and feeling adoration for the great playground that is nature. After all, we are called human beings.

Francis Bacon, often cited as the father of science and ironically attributed to have invented the essay form, is quoted as once stating that God wrote two books: The Scripture and “a second book called creation.”  Time spent with the “second book” offers me tangible, first hand reminders of the greatness of our Creator.  Standing in the presence of a lofty range of mountains, floating across a lakeshore rippling with life, strolling through the rhythmical edge of ocean tide waters, or simply jogging alongside streams and trees on an earthen park trail, my heart and soul are at ease.  There are no timelines, no demands for my attention, no to-do lists, or looming deadlines.  Instead, there is a softness that envelops my soul, a well-worn quilt of comfort, that is available to all.

I suppose my student said it best after all. Spending time in the majesty of nature opens my heart and mind, allowing me to feel as if I have been gathered into an embrace by a loved one happy to see me once more as God’s peace settles over me.  My spirit is more serene, and I feel as if I am part of something larger than myself.  Something so large, I cannot fathom it, but it is something like a prayer.