stories from the training: diane
Zen, Fear and the Art of Abundance
– Diane Chencharick
I had no idea what dramatic changes were about to take place in my life when I signed up for that first program at the Institute for Zen Leadership (IZL). It was September of 2012 and I was doing it to support my sister, Dr. Ginny Whitelaw, author of The Zen Leader and founder of the Institute. This was a brand new program she had developed that was based on her book, and I thought, what the heck, I might even get something out of it. What began was a journey of self-evaluation, flips in perspective, and an opening up in my life that I had never before experienced. This is my story, but it could easily be yours.
My strong Organizer energy had me dutifully preparing the pre-work for this 3-day program in the journal I was provided. I thought about my goals, what I hoped to get out of this experience and the fears that held me back. This wasn’t my first rodeo and I was optimistic that this program might help me break the 3-year slump I was in. My goal was to, once again, produce beautiful art. Yes, I’m an artist – or at least I was. I hadn’t picked up a brush in 3 years. I stopped because I was producing art that was technically proficient, yet I felt was lacking any real soul. I was bored, frustrated and didn’t know how to take my art to the next level. But mostly I was scared – scared of trying something new and having it turn to shit; scared of ruining a painting midway through; scared of discovering that I really wasn’t the great artist everybody thought I was. Boy, that last one still makes me cringe just writing it.
That’s the thing about fear. It can completely immobilize you to the point of making decisions that may be safe, but are really not in the best interest of you or your company. I say company, because I met plenty of business leaders at IZL from all over the world. And when you dig down below the surface, like we did in that weekend, we discovered our stories had a familiar vibe. The very essence of being human shows up, whether you are the President of your own apparel company, a doctor training the next generation of professionals or an artist like me.
I was formally introduced to sitting meditation that weekend, a form called “zazen,” which involves strict posture and breathing deeply into your “hara” or center (a point down in the belly) to quiet the mind. I have heard many times, Ginny repeat the mantra of her own teacher, Tanoye Roshi, “Sit for 20 minutes a day and it will change your life.” I was about to put this claim to the test.
My experience at IZL, was eye-opening. With meditation being at the core, we learned more about the energy patterns and how to best use them. We learned about the root fears that operate in all of us and how to take away their power. I wasn’t convinced yet about making zazen a regular part of my day, but I did decide to try and “sit” more as I began my journey to reclaim my art. I enrolled in and took a workshop with a wonderful experimental (abstract) artist by the name of Pat Dews, who I connected with immediately (we still keep touch to this day). At IZL, I had learned to recognize some of the fears that were at play in me and I made a conscious decision not to listen to them when they surfaced. That’s the beauty of exposing fear – it begins to lose its power over you. I was having fun painting again, trying new things and starting to do some interesting stuff. One of my new pieces, Birches, took a Gold award in a show I had entered. This meant others liked what I was doing, too and I was thrilled. So, when September rolled around again and the first alumni program at IZL was taking place, I was, back at the dojo in Spring Green for another round of training.
The alumni program built on what we had already begun the year prior. We continued our Zen training and also examined our challenges to see if anything had shifted for us. My goal of wanting to produce beautiful art now seemed too small for me, and maybe a little self-serving. Even though I was still learning where this new artistic direction was taking me, I decided that I wanted to try teaching art, so that others might experience the fun I was now having. So, I shifted my thinking around how I could make this new objective happen.
Nothing like changing your goal to let a whole new set of fears set up shop! I wasn’t qualified, I had no reputation, I wasn’t good enough to do this, heck, I was still learning myself. What was I thinking that I could take on something like this?! But I persevered. Pat helped me understand that my 30 years in graphic design offered some credentials I didn’t think I had. I entered, and won, a poster contest for Venice Artfest, giving me tons of exposure in the community. I put together a 3-day workshop that was designed to help artists break through the kind of blocks I went through myself. And I began knocking on doors to try and get this thing off the ground.
Funny how these things work. It goes kind of like this: No, no, no, no, YES! It took a little longer than I had hoped, but by early summer, before my 3rd program at IZL (yes, I went back again for a third time in September), I landed 2 workshops to begin my teaching efforts – one that a friend had helped expedite in Ashland, Oregon and one at the Venice Art Center in Venice, Florida the following season. I was pumped! I began to fine tune all my materials and discovered something very interesting.
I wasn’t just teaching people a style of art, but teaching them about the energy patterns and how their own preferences influenced making art. I wasn’t just teaching a few new techniques, but showing them how to approach learning new techniques fearlessly, to prevent getting stuck in old patterns. I wasn’t just teaching them how to copy my style, but showing them how their own authentic nature could be expressed using similar methods. My “art” class was as much about self-awareness as it was about art. Without even realizing it, I had designed a program that used art to give them tools that could be used, not just for authentic self-expression in their art, but for life itself.
I was doing more sitting by now. It grounded me in the present and helped eliminate fear in myself as I took on this new role. I made sure I sat for 20 minutes before the start of my first workshop. I let things flow and rolled and adapted as things went along. I talked, shared, demonstrated and gave individual instruction for 3 days. Yes, fear showed up big time, but thankfully, it wasn’t in me and I walked them through it. It was a tremendous learning experience for all of us, but especially me. At the end, when my host and I were discussing how thing went and how positive all the feedback had been, she said something to me I will never forget. Her words, “You are so authentic!” blew me away and brought me to tears. It was the best compliment I had ever had in my life.
My Zen training had a rather sneaky way of changing me. It taught me how to become the Observer, witnessing ego, witnessing fear, but not always acting on it. It is only now that I can see how it opened me up and made me bigger than my small ego was doing. Meditation brings you out of all the mind chatter and back into the present moment – this very important point in time where judgment and duality are non-existent and you can sense a oneness with the universe. Have you ever been out in the woods by yourself and felt that feeling of total awe? Nature also has a way of connecting us with our spiritual self. It is from this state of “samadhi” we do our best work. For me, that’s creating art. It flows from me and I give it life, not just in the perfectionism of technique, but through authenticity itself. It makes the difference between art being self-serving vs. art serving others.
The payoff is that the world opens up and responds to this authenticity. Art, like nature and meditation, plays an important role in shaking people out of their normal state of mind-busyness and making them feel. It brings them right into the present moment where they are captured by the essence of the piece and their whole self says “Wow!” And for that small moment in time, however brief, one sees oneself in the art, reflected back, and all that is possible.
I used to think that art was somehow not as important as being a doctor who helps heal or a great leader who does remarkable things, but I view things differently now. Thank you, Ginny, and all my other teachers and colleagues at IZL for your role in helping me make this shift. I’m not sure what life has in store for me from this point forward, but I do know this: I will continue to sit, as this grounds me to the present; I will stay open to new possibilities when they appear, as life is not a stationary thing. I will share my gifts with the people I come in contact, as this is my true purpose.
Happy New Year!