I Am Not a Paintbrush
by Jennifer Paros
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
-- e.e. cummings
In the first studio art class I took, my professor addressed the group’s anxiety over our upcoming art show in this way. She said:
“It’s not YOU hanging on the wall!
We laughed as she then pretended to hang herself like a piece of art, lifting her arms as though pinned to the wall while letting the rest of her body go limp. Yes, we laughed, but we were not soothed. That was a room full of raw egos all trying to figure out how they could protect themselves from the potential judgments of others.
Some time later, still unable to integrate my teacher’s wise words, I threw my back out hanging a painting for a group show – tense with fear over leaving my work open to criticism.
In the arts community, there is much talk about the vulnerability of the writer/artist - a perspective that implies the act of sharing our work risks something greater than someone simply not liking it. This talk is based on a blurred line of perception between who we are and what we do, which can make sharing our work seem (if not favorably received) like a threat to our well-being.
But the threat is only ever to the self-image or ego. Regardless of other’s opinions, we do the work we most want to do, driven by a purpose and connection within that always remains, regardless of reviews.
Close to twelve years ago, I went to the doctor because my hair had started falling out more than normal. Then I went to another doctor, another, and one more – and none could help. So over the next years I lived with the situation while hoping it might rectify itself. During this period, I ran the gamut in emotional reactions – from nightmare panic and urgency, to a calmer stance. But never was there any resolve either of the physical “evidence” of the problem nor of the emotional duress.
"The secret to peace of mind is to not identify with anything other than your True Self."
-- Robert Adams
Then, four years ago, I was painting our bathroom with an old, inexpensive brush I liked especially for edging. But as I worked, it kept shedding bristles, and I found myself in a high state of distress. Soon I realized I was responding to its seeming constant loss of bristles - not as a frustrated painter in need of a better tool, but as a victimized, suffering paintbrush. My mind was playing a game in which I was the paintbrush, and I was feeling the same way I felt about my hair.
Despite knowing the truth, it took great effort for me to calm down. The pain my thoughts were instigating with this faulty identification was so strong, it was difficult to break. Eventually, the absurdity of it forced my rational mind to acquiesce and admit there was nothing to be in pain over. But what of taking myself for hair, for my physical image? My mind spun the story of loss in such a convincing light, all I could experience was fear of trading in one self-image for a lesser one.
I couldn’t see that it’s not a matter of getting “better” hair, a “better” paintbrush, “better” reviews, or “better” anything with which to identify, but instead, becoming aware of what we really are and living from that awareness.
"Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes."
-- Carl Jung
The more we mistake our identity, the more vulnerable we feel, and the more the mind worries - fearful its self-concept hangs in the balance. I have learned there is no security in the self-image because a thought of the self can always change. So the fear of losing these stories of ourselves, the need to maintain control of them, the desire to protect them, is all wasted energy. We locate ourselves not in thoughts of who we are or want to be, but in the present moment. And experiences of criticism, judgment, and rejection can be used to help us remember where we actually reside – in the dynamic, invulnerable energy that wants to come forth and share and communicate freely.
Who We Are cannot be squeezed into any self-image – be it a size 0 or 24, Sick or Healthy, Failure or Success. All self-images, self-concepts, are technically too small for what we are. They’re momentary focuses of our energy and intention. And like the paintbrush, they’re tools that allow us to create, but never define who we are.