The Emergency of Presence

February daffodils

Happy Vernal Equinox!

It’s the first day of Spring (Yay!) up here in the Northern Hemisphere. The beginning of the astrological calendar. Everything is budding and bursting or just about to (under a fresh layer of snow).

While painting yesterday, I was thinking about how we need to be absolutely present as we work with watercolor. (Certainly not the first time I’ve thought or talked about that!)

There are few experiences that force us into being absolutely present for any length of time. Meditation is usually a nice try but even masters of meditation, Pema Chödrön for example, reveal that stilling our wild minds is a practice that helps tremendously but rarely leads to long periods of being here now.

Chödrön’s teacher, Chögyam Trungpa wrote a great little book called Meditation in Action. There’s a lot to that title because, in my experience, some of the greatest practices that keep us present are those involving some kind of physical engagement. Which makes sense because, after all, we are living in physical, temporal structures. Playing music, tennis, and, definitely, painting with watercolor are those sorts of activities that require physical attention with temporal limits. We have to be absolutely present or we’ll lose our place, miss a ball, ruin a painting.

Emergencies are another sort of experience that require our complete presence. You know that when an emergency arises you can’t be thinking about the past or the future, you are suddenly, solving immediate problems with your full attention and you can usually, in retrospect, break your memory of the entire experience into a narrative of milliseconds.

The word emergency comes from the Latin emergere “arise, bring to light” and, of course shares that root with emerge.

Spring is an emergency of sorts, isn’t it? One day, there’s snow on the ground. Then, suddenly, a crocus. The cherry trees bud and blossom. A cast of color passes over bare branches and our flowering friends burst forth again. And, boy, are we happy to see them.

Painting in watercolor is my favorite meditation practice (though it’s more than that).  An images arises and is brought to light, through light, actually. It requires all the focus that any emergency requires. But don’t take my word for it…

“Painting in watercolor is making the best of an emergency.”

—John Singer Sargent

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