Zentangle grid

Micron pen zen tangles. 2017

This became a grid for experimenting with various zen tangles, even if that wasn’t what I set out to do. I have mixed feelings about zen tangles, especially the kind where you’re copying a form that someone else has already invented, with maybe only slight variations. One could say “that’s not art, that is just a form of meditation”. Not that there’s anything wrong with meditation, but it isn’t serious work. The ease with which you can create something beautiful, even if your hand is wobbly and don’t have an eye for perspective, and you have no artistic training whatsoever, seems like cheating, right? It does.

And yet, I learned so many things from this exercise that I plan to continue down this path as long as it leads. If someone wants to call my lines “zentangles” I won’t be offended, especially if I’m inventing new ones. If my contribution to the world is only to create templates for stress-relieving exercises for others, that would be wonderful!

The main thing I learned from my explorations is to relax. Drawing has been giving me wrist pain, and I know that I tend to have a death grip on my pens. For no particular reason. I also tend to work hunched over. (For that, I will probably need to invest in a better desk situation). And I discovered that I don’t breathe when trying to draw very straight lines. Yikes! Not breathing is pretty antithetical to meditation (or, you know, life). So I’m working on all of these things. Even if I never become a real artist, this project may open me up to whatever the next chapter in my life is. Hopefully it will include things of beauty and deep breaths…

I drafted up a 30-day challenge for myself which includes learning how to draw some “real life” things (birds, ships, archaic scientific instruments, etc) and learning some art-related skills (scalable vector graphics, making a pinterest pin, learning processing.js) and then doing some drawing drills. On the side, I also planned to audit a (free) online art course. I may post the full 30-day list once I’ve worked through it a bit more. It’s very good to have some kind of structure, especially when caring for an infant at home means free time for drawing is brief and needs to be used wisely.

One thing I’ve noticed is that it’s pretty obvious when I’m in a learning mode. I sometimes worry, with drawing. If my lines are not very good (because I’m just starting out) and I’m not learning, then I would be purely wasting time. That thought fills me with dread. When the dread evaporates because I’m taking a big risk, or walking an avenue I’ve never been down, or refusing to fall back on old habits, I know that what I am doing has value. That is a sign that I’m in learning mode. Therefore, that sense of dread is not something to be ignored, to push aside. It’s a sign that you’ve stagnated a bit, and need to push forward.

Odd story. Over Thanksgiving I decided that I needed to learn how to play connect four. I don’t mean the rules for the game, I mean how to not lose so spectacularly. A few years ago I played against someone (I only vaguely remember who) and lost a half a dozen games in a row in a way that left me stunned and embarrassed and perplexed. How is it that I wasn’t seeing my opponent setting up for a win, every time? I’m so used to being good at visual stuff, I assumed that those three-in-a-row runs would just pop out at me from the board without having to look. I know, it seems absurd, but I kept not learning, and not trying to learn, like I was in a state of frustrated and mortified paralysis. This is also uncharacteristic for me, right? Don’t I have a masters degree in physics or something? Jeeze. Learning feels awesome. Not learning feels terrible, so why was I stuck there?

So I downloaded a connect four game onto my phone. I like to battle with my inner demons alone, thank you very much. It took more than a dozen games before I broke through whatever weird barrier I had in my head and started to piece together what my algorithmic opponent was trying to do and some basic strategies for blocking and setting up wins. What did breaking through the barrier feel like? It felt like acceptance. I had to accept that I sucked at this game. Not because I’m stupid, but because for so long I’ve stubbornly assumed that the game was so easy that it shouldn’t require any thought. But it does. It’s amazing how many aspects of life can be improved with the application of just a little more thought. It’s a powerful thing!

This is an extreme example of being stuck in a vortex of blocked learning, frustration, shame, etc. But I think it illustrates that to a lesser degree, we all probably have areas of life that we avoid, or that we almost purposefully perform terribly, for fear of confronting how much there is to learn. It’s too bad, because if we could work on unlocking the things we fear the most, the worlds that would open up would be the most beautiful and filled with potential.

Here’s my take-away: It’s better to feel exhausted and torn apart but utterly free to explore everything that life has to offer, than it is to feel safe and settled and have to walk a narrow path wearing blinders to avoid an accidental glance at a terrifying sight. Embrace your fears!

Inspiration videos that I used for this drawing:

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