The Process Behind Moon Angel

After about six weeks of trying to squeeze in an hour or two here and there on this piece in between designing tattoos, I finally finished it! This here Moon Angel is the first of many angels that I’ll be painting for a new strategy card game that I’ve spent the last year developing and playtesting, which, I dare say, is pretty awesome. I become fully aware of its awesomeness at Christmas time a few months ago, when we set off to Colorado for two weeks and spent the days we were snowed in playing the game with my brothers, sometimes for 5 or 6 hours at time, and when I saw how obsessed they became with it, I knew I was on to something. 

Anyway, I thought I’d share some process shots of each piece as I complete them, if for no other reason than to encourage aspiring artists who might stumble upon this to realise that what seem like mediocre or downright terrible sketches may be the beginnings of a nice piece, if they just keep working on it. They say great stories aren’t written, but rewritten, and that’s true of art as well. 

For example, look at this sketch at the top! Nothing special, that’s where this one started. But once I’ve got a rough pencil sketch worth developing, I scan it into Photoshop and start trying out different ideas for it. So here I decided I wanted her face to be more bug-like, or more like a mask than an actual woman’s face, and also decided she needed some extra limbs to make her less human.

The idea for this card was that she’s a kind of shapeshifter, that can take on multiple animal forms at once, so I wanted her to look like she was in the process of transformation. 

Once I was happy with her general shape in Photoshop, I printed her out, lightboxed the sketch, and began a more detailed drawing. That’s when I added a lot of her more specific features, her tendril hair, her beetle feet, and played with another idea for her face. 

Then I scanned that in, and started shading it in black and grey on Photoshop again. The main changed I made then were to her horns, I just felt that the larger, wider, more antler-like horns fit the shape of the composition better, and I also decided that I’d swung too far and her face wasn’t human enough anymore, so I gave her more soft, feminine features. Once I was happy with the black and grey layer, I started adding some colour washes.

Finally  I started adding in more subtle colour effects, and giving more consideration to light sources and the reflections they would cast. Her face was still bothering me, and I realised that I could keep her feminine features but give her big bug eyes at the same time, and once I did that she had the look I wanted, alien, insectoid, dangerous, but also seductive, playful and wise.  

So there you have it. Next up, the Angel of Mercury!

Spiritual Maps and Personal Narratives

This is part three of a series of posts about my recent meditation retreat.

I’ve always been hesitant to seek out spiritual teachers. This is likely due to the fact that I read as many academic studies of religion as I do religious texts themselves, and when you examine these various traditions and communities from a distance it naturally makes you more hesitant to dive in and hand over control of your personal narrative to a guru or guide. That is the contract, after all, you’re relinquishing some measure of control over your sense of who and what you are, in the hopes that your teacher can help you transform those ideas into something better, or even cause them to vanish completely. This can be of huge benefit.

Perhaps you had a profound experience of great clarity, joy and insight, and then promptly slipped into depression and your life started falling apart. You were about to go get a prescription to help you survive this unexpected plunge into existential despair, but then someone convinces you to go on a weekend meditation retreat. You may meet someone there who listens to your story and explains that its a classic pattern they’ve seen hundreds of times, that you have gained insight into a fundamental quality of experience that Buddhists sometimes call dukkha or Knowledge of Suffering and that it’s a positive sign of spiritual maturation, and here is a technique that will help you find your way back to happiness.

If true, that narrative is obviously preferable and more powerful than being diagnosed with depression and becoming reliant on pharmaceuticals. On the other hand…you could end up like one of my tattoo clients who booked a session with some ‘healer’ to help her deal with her anxiety around giving birth, and after her consultation was informed via text message that a malevolent astral entity was attached to her womb which he could remove for her if she booked another session. Thankfully she had the sense not to go back, but there are lots of people walking around with exactly those kinds of ideas planted in their brains by various leaders within the spiritual scene. It must just be the long form conversations I get to have while tattooing people, but I seem to meet them all.

My first one-on-one interview with our teacher Carl was on day three of the retreat. I described my recent meditations to him and his eyes lit up, but then seemed disappointed as I tried to interpret the experiences for him. We had no shared conceptual language, and the little bit of Theravada theory I thought I understood wasn’t serving me well. Based on his reaction I seemed to be describing experiences that only usually arise after the attainment of some relatively deep level of insight, and yet I wasn’t able to express them in a way that proved I understood their significance, at least from a Theravada point of view. Our fifteen minutes ended with him basically saying ‘Okay, forget all that! Just do this simple technique…and you will see magic things’.

That evening he asked me to stay behind for a chat when everyone went to bed. He kindly wanted to make sure he hadn’t left me discouraged or confused. We got into a long conversation which went all the way back to my earliest peak experiences and meditation breakthroughs. I had diagnosed myself as having crossed a fairly early stage of insight on the Progress of Insight map used in this Burmese Theravada tradition, but after describing those experiences to him he again looked impressed and asked I was sure they didn’t represent something much more profound than I’d realised, mentioning certain later stages I thought I’d been striving towards. But then as he questioned me further I was again unable to put it into terms that he could confirm or deny the validity of, because I hadn’t gotten there following the Theravada path. So we left it as an open question that we’d have to talk more about later, and went to bed.

A few days later I had a breakthrough during meditation and saw something Carl had been pointing us towards. I diagnosed my own experience to him during our next interview, and we both agreed that it was the very first stage on the Progress of Insight map. I had been meditating for years within the linear model, trying to crawl my way towards the pot of illuminating gold at the end of the map, and now within the space of three days it had been suggested that I was already at the end of a whole chapter of that particular journey, and that I hadn’t even gotten started yet. This paradox proved to be the koan that sparked my own personal revelation. 

It finally occurred to me that both interpretations were dependent on the kind of language used to express them. When I described the vivid emotional impact of my experiences and their lasting effects, Carl recognised them as mirroring his own major breakthroughs. Yet when I tried to translate them into a technical, philosophical framework we could both understand, it seemed I understood very little of relevance yet to the Theravada path. I also realised that while I had been practicing some form of Buddhist meditation, however poorly, all these years, I had been doing so within a philosophical framework that I had drawn largely from my readings of western mystics and idealist philosophers. Consequently, my most profound experiences had largely involved experiencing matter as an aspect of mind, as if in a lucid dream, but never of seeing mind as an aspect of matter, as Carl was teaching me to do. As a result, I came to understand my breakthrough on retreat not as the first step towards experiencing ultimate reality, as it is often sold, but as the first step towards seeing the world from one possible perspective among many, the Theravada perspective, while I was apparently several steps further down the rabbit hold of my own, seemingly more western, tradition.

This was a major paradigm shift for me, and completely changed how I practice and how I think of ‘the spiritual path’ in general. It brought home to me how central the role of narrative is in spiritual practice, even within traditions that train you to ‘drop the stories’ or to experience ‘unfiltered reality’. We can likely peel away many unnecessary layers of mental baggage by following any one of these paths, but there will also be an underlying story or philosophical position that you are taking on board in the process. Which isn’t a problem so long as that narrative is recognised and freely chosen, otherwise we are likely to become fundamentalists or unthinking disciples of one sort or another. And it seems to me that the more we can become aware of the unexamined narratives that we’ve all imbibed, the more freedom we gain to wield our own thoughts as we choose.

And now for some fun, here’s a teacher I met on an ayahuasca retreat who I later found out trains people in the deadly art of repelling attackers using mental forcefields…This is a fine example of a narrative that no one should ever take one board, as you’ll learn for yourself if you watch the video. (By the way, this is in no way a comparison to Carl, who is totally awesome and as legit as they come). 

Vipassana and Dealing with Pain

This is part two of a series of posts about my first vipassana meditation retreat. Here I’d like to share a little more about the details of the practice itself.

There are several different styles of vipassana. This was a Mahasi-style vipassana course, named after the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw who developed the method. The practice is mainly distinguished by its technique of ‘noting’, or naming different sensations and thoughts as they arise from the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep, while attempting to become every more aware of the subtle sense impressions of breathing, touching, chewing, brushing your teeth, and so on. Other features of Mahasi retreats include the usual strict vow of silence, a 3:30am start, and the distinctly felt absence of an evening meal, which in this case was replaced by a single, lonely Hob Nob which our instructor Carl was fond of telling us to go torture ourselves with after we’d finished our 4pm meditation. The schedule is mainly run on an hour to hour basis, during which you alternate between sitting for an hour and then walking in slow motion through the meadows or in the chi kung hall for an hour, before cracking all your joints and going back to the cushion for the next one hour sit. Each day concludes at 9:30pm.

I’m told that Mahasi retreats are comparable in difficulty to Goenka retreats, which means they’re about as hard as retreats come, without going out of your way to negotiate some uniquely hellish regime for yourself with your instructor. Apparently Goenka courses include a longer sit each morning, but a two-hour period each day where mindfulness isn’t insisted upon, whereas Mahasi retreats stress the importance of moment-to-moment mindfulness but you never sit for longer than an hour. It was even suggested that we should be aware of whether we wake up on the in-breath or the out-breath, and on one morning mid-week I was shocked to actually achieve this.

The sudden shift in sleep patterns, diet and daily routine does come as a shock to the system, and during the first day and a half I watched my mind throw up every reason why coming to this retreat was a mistake. My resistance was compounded by the fact that I went in completely unprepared for the cumulative increase in pain that comes from sitting for so many hours each day. I knew it would be harder than usual because one week earlier I’d injured my ankle the week before, which meant that I struggled to hold any position for a full hour without having to adjust. This meant that by late morning each day I would switch to a basic cross legged position, which would increase the strain on my lower back, and soon it was hard to peel my mind away from the knots in my back that I’d been meaning to get massaged out for months. I then tried the kneeling position using the meditation stool and found that it offered mild relief for my back and a whole new angle of stress on my ankle. So I continuously alternated positions, stretched whenever I could, and resolved to learn to meditate so deeply that I would no longer feel the pain. 

Early on Carl discussed bodily pain, and encouraged us to investigate how much of the pain was merely mental anguish that we were projecting onto what may otherwise be fairly mild physical sensations. I asked him to clarify exactly how to go about investigating pain, and he said that I needed to observe the images, memories and general mental impressions that arise when I focus on a painful area, and then try to look through them to the raw sensations themselves. So off I went.

I focused on the knot in my lower back. I saw stretched metal cables unravelling, wooden beams snapping and splintering, sparks flying from a circular saw, and then I honed in on this orb at the centre of the knot that looked like a spiky puffer fish. I focused more intensely, my back was really on fire at this point, and then the spiky sphere became a smooth glowing sun with coronal mass ejections firing from it; the pain remained but it had somehow smoothed out. Then I focused deeper still and to my amazement the sun turned pink and I suddenly felt no pain whatsoever, as if the entire sense of my body had been absorbed by this ball of light, now adorned with undulating patterns rolling over its surface against an equally baroque background of healing pink psychedelia. I probably held onto this painless vision for a good ten breaths, which feels like a very long time in that state, but although the vision faded and the pain returned, I felt triumphant for having mastered it, however briefly. 

We had fifteen minute interviews with Carl for three days in a row in the middle of the week, and I was excited to share with him my recent victory over back pain. I explained the process to him, and he said, ‘So you’re purposefully focusing on painful areas to make them go away?’ I said yes, I imagine with a noticeable hint of concern. ‘Yeah… that’s not the practice,’ he said, ‘you don’t steer the attention, you observe your attention moving on its own, and that’s how you create the distance necessary to really see what’s going on’. This felt a lot like having your boss tell you that the hole you just broke your back digging for the last twelve hours is in the wrong place. Moments like these made me very aware of how easy it is to misunderstand simple meditation instructions.

So if you’re planning on going on retreat, sort your body out first. I’m aiming to be approximately as supple as a boiled ramen noodle next time I go. I think I actually learned a lot from being able to explore my relationship to pain on retreat though, and even if it didn’t catapult me towards enlightenment, it did humble me and imprint a deep respect for the practice and the tradition itself. I’m not a Buddhist, but every sit I would bow tot he Buddha statue and pray for a fraction of his strength to arise within me to help me make it through the next sit without giving up. And I can feel that respect arise naturally now whenever I sit on the cushion.

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