My Road to Creativity, 17: Naropa:

I was now settled into teaching with less stress of the future of my professorship. I was tenured. After a few years, I was no longer considered a junior professor and given more responsibility. I was teaching mainly upper level studios as well as graduate courses. I continued to serve on the Department and College Curriculum Committees as well as teach Honors Seminars. Along with that I sat on departmental faculty search committees and a number of graduate student committees.

I had restarted my meditation practice and began study Buddhism in greater depth, doing several retreats with Tibetan teachers. I was finding now that my meditation gave me more fearlessness in creating newer more dynamic projects for my students and writing papers on teaching and curriculum. Sadly, I never had any accepted at any design conferences. I had started writing again, mainly poetry, and began creating text based images based in my writings for silkscreening and computer generated designs. But, never-the-less, my confidence level was growing.

It still bothered me seeing my upper level students struggling with the same creativity issues I fought with for all my life. I was due for a faculty improvement leave, aka, a sabbatical. I was seeing the possibility of how meditation might help with creativity. I was due for a faculty improvement, aka sabbatical, and with my interest in Buddhism and creativity, I looked at being a visiting professor art the Naropa Institute, a Buddhist based college in Boulder Colorado. They didn’t have any design based programs, but the chair of the art department told me that much of their art curriculum was based with meditation as a means to creativity. I applied for and was granted a sabbatical for fall semester.

I found a place to stay, a single bedroom in a small house with an older woman. It was similar to being back at grad school. I met the chair of the art department and found out I could sit in on any classes I wished. I selected a meditation practicum, a beginning drawing class that he taught and another more advanced art class with another instructor. My goal was not so much to advance my art skills as it was to observe the teaching methods of people who studied and practiced Buddhist meditation. 

There was a definite more gentle approach than what my art education and design education had offered. I noticed that art was taught as more a meditative process than simply putting down marks on paper, trying to recreate what you saw, it was not so much the outcome as the slow, focused process. It was almost like becoming the subject matter, whether an apple, a pear, a landscape or a person, than the one doing the drawing. It is still difficult to explain now, some twenty years later.

I also sat in on a meditation practicum that took me deeper into the understanding of the practice of quieting the mind and letting go. I remember the traffic noise from the busy street one story below as well as the drumming group that was on the other side. Being warm September, the windows were all open. The noise was distracting, but it became a good practice. I have been able to meditate anywhere through most all distraction after those three months.

But, by far, the biggest opening to creativity was a week long seminar that was offered called, “Dharma Art” based on the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche who resided in and taught Buddhist philosophy in Boulder and was the founder of Naropa. This seminar and the creative exercises had a profound impact, opening me up to that creative force I had been searching for all those years.

There different exercises, all beginning with fifteen minutes of meditation and then involving everything from movement, writing exercises, exploring the tactile feel of nature while blindfolded, group exercises that developed trust, massive group painting on scrolls of butcher paper and so on. All the students, much younger than me, of course, were from all different disciplines such as dance, music, art, and writing. The week was a complete and total blast. I was finding out how to simply create without consideration, worry, and ignroing both the outer and self critics. Just simply do it without worry. I had my mind opened to something very powerful.

Two things I carried away from Naropa that would remain with me were, “Notice what you notice” and, “First thought, best thought”. I considered these for a long time and they eventually became my mantra. Generally, pay attention to what is going on around you and don’t question, just do with an open and empty mind..

The semester over, sad to leave Boulder and the friends I had made, but was time to be home with my wife and get back to my life.

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