Saturday, January 9, 2016

Suffering Bodhisattva

Suffering Bodhisattva was an extremely emotional journey for me. One which is never completed, but moves along a continuum of life experiences. These experiences are a wonderfully chaotic and sometimes quite painful combination of womanhood, being chronically ill and my Buddhist inspired life philosophy. She is fully human, perfectly imperfect, quite unfinished and deeply Spiritual.

She arose out of the ashes, from a period of time that was acutely difficult for me. Probably the most difficult I have had since becoming sick and continue to work my way through today as I type this. Not the most sick I have ever been, but this particular issue has been an intense struggle for me on an emotional level. 

I've been wanting to paint something in regards to this period of my life, but honestly, I've been too sick and too overwhelmed to do so. Just mustering through life has been enough. But thanks to good doctors and a major burst of prednisone, I found myself out in the studio aching to create. I had no idea where I would go. I had no idea where I would start. Suffering Bodhisattva is where I took my rest.

A little bit about the physical side of the painting. I generally paint on a bare cotton canvas. This painting is actually on top of a photo that my husband had printed off for a showing of his own. This particular one came back from the printer a bit off in color, so a second one was made. I had originally planned on trying something creative with the photo incorporated into the painting. The process had it's own ideas, and quite soon the photo was but a memory. There is something warm and comforting to me in the knowing that my husband's work lies below this painting. On more levels than I can even write to you here. Whoever ends up with this work is really getting a pretty good two for one deal! Also, if you are wondering what the texture is, it's leftover tissue paper from this past year's Christmas presents. Quite symbolic for me as this was a particularly hard holiday due to my illness. I simply painted the canvas with an acrylic medium and stuck strips of ripped tissue paper on top, then painting over with the same medium. I moved it around with my hands with absolutely no intention, but a lot of emotion and a lot of tears. The process had begun.

I then waited for the medium to dry and painted over the top of it with only three colors - cyan blue, magenta and yellow. The tissue paper, although strengthened by the paint, was still fragile. So I gave it a heavy coat of varnish and went to bed.

The next morning when I went out into the studio I just sat and looked at what I had created. Originally it was horizontal. I turned it one way and then flipped it upside down and nothing came to me. After allowing myself to get discouraged I thought, "Hey...why do I think this needs to be horizontal?" So I flipped it vertical and there she was. I quickly got out my bottle of Payne's Gray and painted around the figure as she emerged. I simply can't tell you how exciting that was for me. With each stroke she became more clear, and from that moment on, everything just fell into place. There were no more questions. The more that emerged, the more things made sense to me.

Suffering Bodhisattva, although representational of my life and journey, is not limited to me. She is all women. And in our common suffering there is common compassion, common joy and common wisdom to be found. In that wisdom and sharing of our stories, there is strength. Let me share a few themes that became evident to me as this work came to life.

For me, the tissue represents actual tissue. It feels to me like nerve fibers. Those with Lupus and many other autoimmune diseases are plagued with nerve pain. This pain is not limited to a particular part of my body. It is very systemic. But really, all pain is systemic. We are whole bodies and we cannot separate ourselves from our foot or our toe or our head... The tissue represents the interconnectedness, both on a physical level and an emotional level.

You can see in some places it looks as though the tissue is coming out of the body. I found this very interested in two areas. The head and the abdomen. On a physical level, I suffer from headaches every day of my life. I also have some pretty complicated GI issues that have required various surgeries. On a more symbolic level, our pain is not our own. When my suffering is not mindful, it can mess with my head and I can cause some real havoc with the people I love. Especially my beloved husband. Mind games don't stay in the mind. Eventually they move out. In regards to the abdomen, this is the center of who I am. There is so much tied into this with not only my connection to my own mother (I loved how the umbilical cord just appeared), but my connection to my children, whom all too often I shield from my illness. Sometime too well and sometimes not well enough.

The tissue also represents a sort of binding. First in its limiting effects on me physically, but also feeling silenced or muted by it. Often times chronically ill people will not want to worry friends and family. Or even more so, they fear the "wearing down" of people they depend on. Suffering in silence can be emotionally difficult and isolating.

The colors go hand in hand with the tissue. Often times perfectly representing significant areas for me. In particular, this whole low point in my life is due to a severe shoulder problem in the connective tissues surrounding my shoulder.  It is causing not only an extreme amount of pain, but a significant loss of mobility for me. Disabling me even more. The same shoulder on Suffering Bodhisattva is not only tissue laden, it is red and purple, signifying pain and injury.

The texture off to the left of her side looks to me like a falling mummy. Not only a falling mummy, but one that is reaching for something that has obviously fallen first. To me, this represents those "egos" that we have to let go of. Those identities that serve us temporarily, yet we attach so strongly to them. This became ever so clear to me when I became sick. What am I, if not a certain kind of mother, the wife I used to be, a runner, a business analyst, a healthy person, an energetic wife, a productive citizen...? What am I, sitting here, sick? Unable to move. Unable to do. Unable to become. Unable to keep up. This loss of identity can be incredibly frightening. But it's not until we shed those things that bind us that we can be vulnerable. That we can be real. That we can become truly what we are meant to be - and that is the fully human, perfectly imperfect, quite unfinished and deeply Spiritual human beings that we are in this very moment. Right here, right now, as is.

That's where the form comes into play. For me, the pose embodies all that is beauty. Open, naked, arms stretched high - vulnerable. Not finished. Reaching up into something greater than herself, drawing it in. Letting go of all that engulfs her. Feeling beautiful regardless of pain, regardless of suffering. She is bald. She is not tied to earthly ideas of beauty. Like a Bodhisattva, she embraces self sacrifice not as a way of martyrdom, but in the pursuit of compassion for self and for others. In doing so, finds liberation from her own pain and suffering.

A Bodhisattva is not a Buddha. She continues on a journey that is not perfect. She is a warrior for compassion. Compassion arises out of an ability to put yourself in another's shoes. To feel what others feel. If you have ever lost someone you deeply loved, or lost your health, or a child...or felt any great suffering - you are very aware of the suffering of others.

You are Suffering Bodhisattva.

I am Suffering Bodhisattva.