Japanese calligraphy (called Shodo) exists somewhere between art and meditation.
The lines between drawing and writing are equally blurred. The word Sho can mean to write, to draw or to paint.
There is perhaps little real difference between them, for us too.
The part of the word Shodo that interests me most, though, is the second part – do, meaning the way
Calling any human activity a do elevates it beyond its obvious purpose to the point where it becomes an art – one which is approached as a way of life which embodies certain principles. Following a do means continually trying to embody these principles more completely in the way you live.
In Shodo, one of the most important of these principles is mind and body coordination – essentially harmony of the mind and body.
According to practitioners, bringing the mind and body into harmony through the practice of Shodo:
- enhances attention and focus
- creates peacefulness and relaxation
- develops willpower
It seems to me that all of those things are high on the list of desirable personal qualities for an artist.
- Attention and Focus: We need attention and focus to be able to work for long periods of time. Drawing anything accurately requires focus. Importantly, too, we develop our skills more when we give our practice our full attention.
- Peacefulness and relaxation: You can’t make beautiful work if you’re stressed and jittery. It’s next to impossible to work with attention and focus if you’re not relaxed. Beautiful line comes from a place of calm.
- Willpower: Willpower is necessary for us to keep on the path – the do – and to continue to develop ourselves and our art. Developing the skill required to make beautiful work requires devotion to practice over a long period of time.
That’s why I’ve recently decided to study Shodo as part of my regular practice. Because I see these traits as essential to the way of the artist. So I’d like to develop them in myself.
We might think that the reason we practise is to improve our art, but the real transformation is within ourselves.
What we really create through regular, focused practice is development of our drawing and painting skills yes. But also change in our personalities; in our understanding of ourselves; in our ability to focus and live as completely and as meaningfully as we can.
Wabi, another of the principles of Shodo, translates literally as “poverty”. Perhaps “simplicity” might be a better way to think of it. It relates particularly to simple truths of nature, a lack of human artifice.
Wabi also expresses the beautiful imperfection and irregularity of nature. Asymmetrical balance is a central idea in Shodo, and one which resonates with the kind of art we more usually create I think – most obviously in composition.
I’m right at the beginning of my exploration of Shodo and how its ideas can be related to our art practice. I practice for an hour in the evening, usually beginning with an Enso followed by some practice of basic strokes.
The Enso symbolises many things, but is most often described as a circle of infinity. It exemplifies dynamic action within balance and complete concentration in the moment.
- Practice begins with the ritual-like arrangement of materials, something I’ve been doing for some time whatever I’m drawing. It’s a great habit to get into because it mentally prepares you for practice, it helps develop peacefulness and relaxation.
It also makes it much easier to get started every day.
- Then the ink is ground, a process which is as much a part of the practice as the physical drawing itself. Why? Because grinding the ink is an opportunity to practice attention, focus and relaxation – it really doesn’t matter at this point whether I draw anything or not. I’ve practiced being in the moment, and developing attention and focus.
- At this point, I usually take a few minutes to centre myself in the hara and relax.
- Finally, the Enso is drawn. Here’s a quick 2 minute video showing how a typical practice session starts for me.
I think this complete concentration in the moment, together with the simplicity and the imperfect, asymmetrical balance of the Enso can feed directly into all drawing practice.
Here’s an example:
In this little drawing of a hollyhock I see the simplicity and imperfection of nature, it reflects the imperfection of my drawing.
All my drawings are imperfect to a greater or lesser extent. Usually greater! I’ve learned to be fine with that.
I strove for asymmetrical balance in the way the original drawing was cropped and arranged in the circle.
The act of sitting in the garden drawing the hollyhock itself was approached as a meditation. I was careful not to rush and tried not to think of the finished drawing, concentrating as much as possible on each line as the pencil crept slowly over the paper.
As well as finding ideas that translate immediately to the kind of drawing practice I usually do, I’m seeing an approach to art and practice that promises release from the frustration of the endless struggle to reach impossible – or perhaps simply unfulfilling – artistic goals.
When I returned to art eight or nine years ago, I was concerned entirely with the development of skills, looking for signs of progress from one drawing to the next.
I worked hard, but not always productively. Much of my time was spent in frustration which hampered my progress.
Having worked through that time, having developed some measure of those skills I thought I was lacking, and having found myself still unfulfilled by what I was producing, I find myself now on a new stage of my personal artistic journey.
Although perhaps journey is the wrong metaphor, because a journey implies a destination.
There is no destination in what we do. There is no point at which we will be able to say that we’ve arrived.
I don’t believe that lasting fulfillment can’t be found through the acquisition of skills or the production of better pieces of work, no more than it can be found in new cars, clothes or tech gadgets.
It can be found in the approach we take to our practice, but it takes time to learn.
You have already arrived
Every time we immerse ourselves completely in an act of creation (no matter how insignificant it might seem) we have arrived. Every time we do that, we transform ourselves a little more: we find more peace, develop our focus and attention a little more, become stronger in ourselves.
Perhaps that’s really the lesson of the enso. There is a definite beginning, when the brush touches the paper for the first time. But there is no end.
The Enso, Shodo practice, and meditation are about personal transformation. Ultimately, I believe, that’s why we practice art.
And the more completely we accept that fact, the more balanced we’ll be, the more we’ll be in harmony with our real goals, and the more peace of mind we’ll find.
And, perhaps, the better our art will be.
Thanks for reading
Posted: August 26th 2014
The ideas in this post have come in large part from reading Brush Meditation, A Japanese Way to Mind and Body Harmony by H. E. Davey. If any of these ideas resonated with you, I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy. Whether you decide to practice Shodo or not, it will make you a better artist.
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