0956-P, 26x80", oil on panel ©2009 Janice Mason Steeves
This is a painting I completed this week. It's from a series called the River of Longing. It doesn’t seem to fit into the series, but I don’t know what else to call it yet. So I’ll just let it be # 0956-P for now. It started off to be something else. I had a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to paint when I began. I struggled and struggled with the image trying to make it be what I saw in my mind. After many hours, I sat back to regard the work and came to the quick and upsetting conclusion that the painting was stunningly boring. In frustration after spending so much time on it, I placed it on my worktable and had the satisfaction of smearing various colours over the surface…the greens and browns I was working with at the time. Then I walked away and took a long break.
When I came back, feeling calmer, I very quickly and roughly sketched in the outline of three vessels, and put it up on my easel to have a look. I was excited by the dark moodiness and the freedom of it. I continued to work on it, but very slowly and with very little effort. It had painted itself!
Only then did I remember reading about Wu Wei. Wu Wei has been translated as “inaction”, “not forcing”, and “doing nothing”.
In the book, Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel has an exchange with his archery master that illustrates how a goal can be reached by giving up the attempt to reach it:
”The right art,” cried the Master, “is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed…What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.”….”What must I do, then?” I asked thoughtfully. “You must learn to wait properly.” “And how does one learn that?” By letting go of yourself, leaving yourself and everything yours behind you so decisively that nothing more is left of you but a purposeless tension.”
Sometimes I can find that place when I paint. If I am not attached to the results, and work quickly, without thinking, my paintings are much stronger and help me find new directions to explore. This painting has led me to a new way of expressing the vessel symbol that has recurred throughout my work for the past fifteen years and it has reminded me of an important lesson. Paradoxically, the purposeless characteristic of wu-wei is purposeful; its purpose is not to let purpose get in the way of the goal to be attained.