Don’t stress, don’t think. Just draw.

Meditation apps, mindfulness classes, and #selfcare is everywhere now. At least in New York, where most are overworked and anxious. I am no exception, so during a stressful week, I also found my way to Yoga Nidra and began reading self-help classics like Eckart Tolle’s Power of Now. It turned out to be helpful in a sort of unexpected way:

Tolle says we think too much. Unable to stop, we constantly label, narrate and judge what we see. Much of it is unproductive and makes us feel bad—but we are addicted. To be at peace, he explains, we need to use the mind as a tool. We should pick it up when we need it and lay it back down when we’re done.  Simple as that.

Reading that, it sounded impossible. Until I realized I’ve actually done it countless times; when I pick up my pen to draw, I lay down my mind.

I don’t manage every time, of course. When I need it the most, I often fail and choose distraction instead. I’ll find a bad Netflix show to play in the background, so I can draw. It keeps the mind occupied, and I do get stuff on paper. But after an hour, I’ll feel like I can’t breathe. 

When I do find the time, the place, and the courage to sit down and put pen to paper without distraction, the mind does take its spot on the shelf. My thoughts fall away, and I get to watch my subject, or simply my drawing, without assigning words. I just get to be with what I’m seeing.

And when you don’t restrict what you see to the things you can name, you suddenly see way more. If it’s a person you’re looking at, you don’t make a mental comment about the fit of their shirt. You don’t look for a word to describe their expression. You just take in their whole being, you see them fully, and you’re totally at ease, relaxed.

So before you spend your vacation days on a pricey silent retreat, go get some papers and a pen at the deli—two bucks.

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On Drawing Portraits

When I was a freshman in college, I decided to get a table at the annual craft fair to make some money. Except I didn’t have any scarfs knitted, candles poured, or cards painted, so I had to come up with something quick. I decided to do live portraits, in ink. 

It was terrifying because there was a real chance I’d make someone pay eight dollars for a terrible rendition of their face. And because Bard College is kind of an awkward place where eye contact with strangers is usually avoided. So I worried people wouldn’t seek out being stared at for ten whole minutes.

But I drew over 20 portraits that day. Every time someone sat down, I focused less on drawing them, and more on seeing them. I realized that the input I needed was not just the shape of their jaw and the texture of their hair, but the feeling I got from being near them. As long as I focused on that, my hand knew what to do.

I felt like I got to know some people without having to talk very much. They were willing to sit and as I let my eyes absorb their personality and their presence. And they seemed genuinely happy with the lines that wound up on the paper that way.

One of the people I met that day was a staffer at the college, who asked me if I would draw portraits at her mother’s birthday party. Two weeks later, she came to get me in her pick-up truck. Holding my bag of drawing paper and japanese pens, I looked out the window as we left the manicured lawns of my liberal arts bubble, got onto the highway and eventually stopped in what I now know is a trailer park.

It turns out I was the attraction of the party. Surrounded by plastic folding chairs, disposable plates and supermarket cake, I drew nearly every guest. I captured missing teeth and greasy pony tails as well as pudgy eight year olds and wrinkled upper lips, and it’s still one of the best memories I have from that time. I didn’t even talk to them much, didn’t catch most of their names, but by drawing them, I connected. 

I really got to see them and they seemed so happy to be seen.

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Here’s a portrait of my mom, who doesn’t do any drawing but sees people like no other.