August 4, 2009

Time for Silence, Space for Inaction

In Chinese calligraphy, there are moments where motion stops. The brush comes to a halt at the end of a stroke. During this pause there is a collection of energy and reorientation before movement begins again. The non-movement is called the dun, and is often preceded by a firm exhalation and planting down of the heel of the brush - almost like the heel of a dancer at the end of one leap and preparing for another. This moment of pause is not without its drama, for it concludes one movement and anticipates the next.
I often think of the dun when I have a protracted flurry of activity in one sphere and have to switch for another - like now when my period of gypsy teaching and attendance at arts festivals ends and I begin to prepare for autumn conferences, solitary studio work, updating records and doing more research for new course offerings. The former is exuberant and the latter quiet and reflective. Plunging from one life into another without a pause, I find to be too disorienting. So the dun as a state of mind as well as physical inaction is important to me. Sometimes a pause is filled with mindless but necessary action - like cleaning up and reorganizing the studio space for the next round of activity. Or I take a useless ride to nowhere.
I often think of the dun when I witness first hand as well as read about the epidemic of texting and twittering in this country. I see the lack of the pauses necessary for reorganizing a life when I read the ceaseless chatter on Facebook. Some of this is fun, of course, but at the risk of sounding like a party poop extra ordinaire, I find that if I don’t ignore most of the invites, I start to feel like a chattering monkey. So I log on and sweep out - probably mortifying cyberfriends with my misanthropic presence and virtual gift refusals. It is tough love, I try to tell myself. They should be finishing that last chapter of a novel, writing a song or a poem, or just luxuriating in a moment of precious silence.
What, I wonder, is so fearful about silence and inaction, that we must fill every hole in the day with activity? Will something or someone we don’t want come in and fill the space or time before we plug it up ourselves?
I taught Chinese calligraphy again for maybe the thousandth time this past summer. And I noticed that my American students had the same problem they always have with it - they don’t know when to stop moving. The movements were difficult but the dun was harder. Eventually they got the hang of it but had to be reminded to alter their speed from fast to slow, to twisting, then STOPPING and PAUSING, then repeating.
So for anyone reading this, I invite you to join me in reflecting upon the seated faceless form I painted and DO NOTHING for five minutes. Then reflect upon what is really important. And share with real friends in real time with real gifts if that is possible. If it is not, then share a heartfelt thought that took some time and intent.

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