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Introspection and the Art of the Self Portrait

I hope these words don’t find home with you twenty years too late like they did with me.  Keep them now.  Find your own way of connecting.  Love and take care of yourself.  Let’s love ourselves.

I have learned a lot in this last quarter, everything is so fresh and so raw.  Its hard to believe its only been 8 weeks, because simultaneously it feels like it has been 8 years, at a minimum.  I want to leave something behind, a piece of me, of my experience, because I feel that after everything you have given me, this place has given me, I feel like its my duty.  Its my privilege to share what I have learned thus far.  I am only scratching the surface.  I started a long time ago, but the work with this group of people and what it has brought up in me halts any forward progress in any endeavor in my life, save this one.  The self-work, the dedication to becoming more aware of not only my words and actions, but the sensations in my body.  My habits of being.  The way in which my brain works.  These are processes that I have taken for granted, that I have manipulated, for my own benefit for the last 40 years.

All of my training, the focus of my personal and professional endeavors has been to eek out every drop of essence every bit of energy, but for the wrong purpose, and with the wrong end in mind.  In so doing I have disregarded selfcare.  I cannot emphasize how important this concept is, the concept of selfcare.  Many have written about it.  Many have tried to convince you in their own words.  I am of the breed of men that have endeavored to conquer, have pursued lofty goals, have persevered in the face of many hardships.  I continuously take Self for granted.  I ignore selfcare, and have misunderstood it as a state of normal being.  It is my assumption that others have operated similarly.  It is my faith in my fellow humans that we share a common vision for the world and that we work towards it, together.  All too often the pursuit of greatness is not centered in habits of mindfulness, habits of gratitude, and a consciousness that regards the body and mind connection with the utmost stewardship.  That same notion I enter a space with that it is my responsibility, my duty, to leave this space, to leave a classroom, an auditorium, even a bathroom… to leave those spaces better than when I came; just to pick up a scrap of paper and clean… That I afford physical spaces more credit and more respect than I do the spaces in my own mind, the spaces in my own heart says something about my foundation.

I caution the progressives out there, the achievers, the highly motivated individuals, I warn you now, having built a lifetime of pursuits, achievements, goals and progress of my own on soft ground … my foundation has cracked. The structures I have built for myself have weakened.  Notice, in my description of my mistake, my misfortune, I don’t call it failure.  It’s not that, because this, the sharing of mistakes, the admission of it is a lesson.  The fact that I can pass along these hard-earned reflections to you, my sisters, my brothers, my life is not wasted.

So, I urge you, vehemently … persuade, influence, coerce, tickle, decry, plead with you … make time for yourself.  Not in the ways our society tries to capitalize on, in this material based, consumer pursuit of “happiness.”  That is not happiness.  Making time for yourself is not going away to Sandals Resort in Puerto Vallarta.  It is not buying a convertible to drive the Pacific Coast Highway.  More importantly it is less about the tangible, materialistic experiences, and more about the moments of self-reflection and introspection.  I caution you, build a life where these moments are sacrosanct.  Make it a daily habit to check in with yourself.  Affirmations.  Gratitude lists, you name it.  Make it a courtship whereby you lose interest in yourself, as you would lose the interest of your lover, if you do not make an effort to regularly, daily, hourly woo yourself.

I recently spoke with a therapist who echoed every bit of advice about rest that I have experienced in my life and yet, something about this conversation was different.  Something stuck with me.  Something was more resonant than similar advice ever had been.  “Rest,” she told me, “takes as much energy as does the normal work in our daily lives.”   It is not a default when we close our eyes, or when we take a breath that we are resting or recovering fully. Rest requires as much energy, as much consciousness as it does to make a grocery list and go to the store, or to write an essay to get admitted to chiropractic college.  Rest, relaxation, rehabilitation, recovery of the Self is an endeavor, is a practice that demands our attention.  Without it, without conscious effort we are constantly running on fumes.  We do not fully recharge.  We do not fully engage with the recovery process.

In our modern, technologically dependent, convenience-based lifestyles we are conscious of plugging our phones and our devices in so that they receive a full charge overnight.  We are conscious that pulling the plug too soon on those devices wears on the battery life and degrades its performance.  Why are we not equally concerned with our own recharging?  We compromise it!  We sell it away so we can achieve, so we can progress further in our careers, in life.  I caution you … don’t make the same mistake that I have made in assuming that at the end you will somehow redeem these qualities; that at the end there is a finish line where we recover, where we become whole again; that there will be time later on to learn these processes.  The time for these things is right now.

I am taking that time.  I am not only taking that time, but I am slowing way, way down in my life, because I have gone too long and too far in this life without having learned my lesson.  All my parts and all of my bits have suffered for it, and now I am in this place of compromise: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual compromise.  I am rebuilding every bit of myself.  Every bit of self-talk, and motivation and awareness that had been rooted in negative paradigms.  I am not shifting anything.  I am tearing it down, and I am rebuilding from scratch my sense of wellbeing, my consciousness, because Living requires it.  Understand the impact of that statement.

“This life we are given, this chance,” my big brother tells me, “We are not worthy.”  We are not worthy of the gift that we have been given, the miracle that has been bestowed upon us in this life.  There is nothing that I will do today, tomorrow or in the next thirty years to deserve the gift of life: the breath, the joy, the love.  Nothing can be done to repay, as much as we struggle with that concept and believe otherwise.  “Instead, what is encouraged,” my big brother tells me, “Accept the gift.”  Accept, because the universe demands that of us.  It gives freely and it wants us to accept its gift rather than resist.  We might resist, because we feel we are not worthy, or it is too much.  When we resist, we displease the Universe.  When we accept fully with an open heart then we are able to receive and it pleases the Universe, the cycle completes itself.  In the process of us accepting, we pay forward the love, the joy, and the acceptance of another gift.  We complete the cycle.  We renew it.  We charge it with our own energies.  Not for ego.  Not for our individual tiny selves, but because we are part of something bigger.  That is how this Universe works.

Self-work, selfcare … this is also the hard work that you must do.  Universe demands it of you.  Self demands you.  Those who you seek an audience with, who you seek to please, whom you choose to serve, they demand it of you as well.  Be a person who is conscious, who is aware, who is attuned.  Before you can play an instrument, you have to tune it.  You must make sure it is in the right key.  You have to make sure its well-oiled, cared for, clean.  Take care of your instrument, your temple, your body.  That includes your mind.  That includes the Educated Mind.  More importantly the Innate.

Tune yourself into it.  Hone your relationship with it.  Pay attention to what it is saying to you.  Do not abuse it like I have.  Don’t assume that it will be there for you, because it always has been and it always will be.  You have to do just as much work.  You have to be a steward, and a good one.

An exercise I will do with my brothers and sisters, alone the lines of self-reflection, introspection, self-care, is to draw a self-portrait.  Now the task of drawing a self-portrait is viewed as being monumental.  It is feared by some artists.  It is laughed at by the uninitiated.  Still, it is merely an exercise.  Much like a “selfie” is just a snap shot in time, a self-portrait is a moment that you take with yourself to check in, to draw what you see and to see past any perceived issues, judgements, notions.  It is a moment to take care of yourself and appreciate what is there, what is sitting right in front of you.

As you sit, use the simplest tools.  All that is required is a graphite pencil, a white eraser, a sheet of white paper and a mirror.  If you do not have a mirror, take your cell phone, laptop or device, plug it in, charge it.  Now turn on the device so that the camera is facing you, so you can see yourself, essentially in the mirror.  Do not just take a picture, but instead, see yourself in real time.  This allows you the opportunity to get in touch with movement, with breath, with the animation of your being.  When you simply take a picture, it is easy to disconnect from the being – you are only perceiving a two-dimensional representation.  Better yet to be looking in a mirror, to be able to react, to observe the changes in your own body.

Start with the general shape of your face.  Stop looking with judgement at your eyes, your lips, your nose, your cheeks, your hair, your mouth.  See the shapes that sit in front of you. Go back to your childhood and remember when you learned about the circle, square, triangle, rectangle, and trapezoid.  These are the basic elements, the only shapes you will need.  In looking at your head see the roundness, the curves.  Right now, we are only looking at the shape of your head. With your pencil or graphite, make the shape by hovering over the paper before committing it to the page with line and detail.  Make the motion with your whole arm. Feel the shape as you connect your eye (the receptor) with the movement of your recorder (your hand, arm and pencil – now your pencils is an extension of your arm).  Make the motion and when the motion feels appropriate to that which you see in the mirror as you practice the shape, crafting your head in a circle… when it feels right to you, then record what you know to be true.  Put the pencil on the paper and make the strokes that feel appropriate.  Do not judge it.  Once its down let it be.  We can go back and erase it later.  That is why we have a white (block) eraser, as opposed to a pink pencil-tip eraser.  The pink will leave a mark. You will remember it is there, and that will appear unforgiving.  The white eraser is smooth and takes out all trace of the graphite.

We have the shape of our face now.  At this point, make observations of the general features of your face: the eyes, the nose, the mouth.  Do not forget the ears.  You may not be able to see your ears but relate to them.  Know where they are in relation to the shape of the head.  Place your fingertips on the shape of your face.  Start to relate where the eyes lay in relation to the ears.  And where the eyes lay in relation to the ears, are they a third of the way down from the top of the head?  Are they halfway down?  Two thirds of the way down?  You will be surprised when you observe objectively where your eyes and ears actually are in relation to the general circle you have made for your head as opposed to where you perceive them to be normally.  Noticing that difference, you can more appropriately, more “realistically” place your ears and your eyes on your head.

This is where your eraser might come in handy.  Lay down, generally where the ears connect with your head.  Not the top of your ears, because the tops of the ears are actually higher than where the flesh is connected to the head, and the ears are in fact a shape of their own.  Let us leave them alone for now, besides just knowing where they connect.  Don’t get too far into detail just now.  Know where the ears connect and also, know where the center of the eyes will be.  We will start to shape out and carve more detail into this as we go along.  Right now, we are getting the general landscape.  We are laying down marks in order to feel into where your features are.

Next, notice in your image, in your mirror where the nose lays in relation to the eyes.  Some people will have a broader nose.  Some will be narrower, some will be quite short.  Some people have wide nostrils.  These again are details.  What you are looking for is the general shape of the triangle that your nose makes: the base, the apex, the centerline.  You can make marks.  You can even draw a triangle to lay these features out.  Lightly trace in what might be the base, or edges of your nostrils, and the apex or bridge of your nose. Lay these in between the place where your eyes are.  See this in relation to your eyes.

Now, having played with these shapes, let us figure out the mouth.  Where does your mouth occur?  Your mouth is not just a line or a circle.  It is a series of shapes to illustrate lips, edges and curls that denote expression.  Furthermore, your mouth occurs above your chin.  And your chin is a prominence at the bottom of the head, or the circle representing your head.  Maybe in drawing this circle you did not account for your chin.  You did not see the chin.  Maybe you have a beard, so it obscures the shape of the chin.  The shape of your head thus changes from a circle or oval to something with a bit of a protrusion at the bottom. Account for this space now as well.

If you do have a beard you really have some sculpting to do.  This is detail that will be added as you get further into defining the face in specific. What we are really looking for before we get to the details are landmarks.  Where is the center of the opening called the mouth?  Where are the corners of the mouth?  Where do they play in relation to the chin, to the jawline, to the cheeks?

As you are observing, watching your face in the mirror feel the connection between what your eye sees and what your pencil, your arm, your instrument feels.  When you feel truth in your strokes, record them. Start to play with it.  We can always go back.  We can always remove lines.  Do not worry if it is not perfect the first time.  I always get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the blank page, the responsibility of having to make “perfection.”  But as we know in life, nothing is perfect.  And if we work ourselves up with anxiety about each line and each stroke, we will never give ourselves the freedom to create, to feel, to make art.  Give yourself that permission now.

Once we have the general landscape of our face, we can start to rough in the finer details such as corners of the mouth, dimples, cheek bones, eyebrows, lengths and widths of lips and other features.  The divot that is beneath the bottom lip that protrudes down onto the chin, its kind of like a little soup canal if you were to dribble down onto your chin.  These are the finer details that we get to start playing with.

Before we do, let us take a step back and look at the over all shape of our face.  Remember there is no judgement here.  We do not have any detail yet. We are working with the basic foundation.  What you are playing with is a general shape.  The general outline of your head. Within that, we telescope in and see that there may be hair included.  There may be a prominent forehead.  Make room for that.  Make space for the things that you start to notice about yourself in this space where you are observing you, seeing you, perhaps for the first time without judgement, without a preconceived notion, or any attachments.  See where the landscape of the center of the eyes, the bridge of the nose, the base of the nose, the top of the lips, the bottom of the chin.  Where are they?  And now, where are they in relation to the ear?  If you do see your ears, place them, shape them in right now.  Give them curvature.  And from here we can start to put in hair, facial hair, mustaches, beards, goatees, glasses if we wear glasses.  This is the time to put them in.  We do not want to add them until we have the basic landmarks, these structural foundations.

As we start to play with these shapes, we can start to find places where our truth defines more detail.  When I say, “defining more detail through truth” you start to see repeated patterns. You start to see the roundness and the shape of your eye – not what you think is supposed to represent an eye – but you can observe your actual eye.  And you can represent it in the unique shape in which it truly exists.  You might see that perfect little square of reflection that you want to make sure is represented as a matter of detail.  Play with them.  Shape things in.  Move the pencil in your hand.  Use a broader angle.  If perhaps it’s too broad, sharpen the tip.  Give yourself the edge that is required to define the shape that you feel is appropriate, is true.

From here we can feel more comfortable playing with things like detail, light and shade.  If these terms are too overwhelming for you, don’t worry.  Just go back to the truth in what you see.  Start there.  You will realize when you want to go deeper, when you want to “represent” or when you want to create an effect.  This is the process of learning to draw, to play, to have fun.  As you go down rabbit holes you will know when you feel comfortable and when you don’t.  You will know when detail is just enough or too much.  A note on detail: when you start to have some hair, note thatthe hair doesn’t need to be represented strand for strand.  It does not need to be perfect.  Hair takes on a general shape. My hair, presently, is shaven.  I have an almost bald head.  More to the point, I have salt and pepper flecked on the top of my scalp. If I were to be insanely meticulous about the detail and I was working on a large enough scale I would dot-for-dot start to represent each follicle of hair – using stippling.  But be conscious of the size of your portrait.  Be conscious of the level of detail that you give the portrait based on the size that you have chosen.  If you are working within two square inches, it would not be appropriate to stipple in my hair. But if I was working on a sheet of paper that is perhaps eighteen by twenty-four inches, and I was filling up the page, then perhaps more detail would be required. Everything is in relation to perspective.  What is it that you are trying to accomplish?  How realistic do you want it to be?  How caricature-ish do you want it to be?  Is it enough to use a simple line, a stroke?  Is it more rewarding to show accuracy?  You as the artist get to decide these things.  You get to define where along the pendulum you want to be represented.  The self portrait that you make now, that you draw today, it may not be the same one that you do a month from now, 6 months from now, 2 years from now. The exercise in and of itself is to become more attuned with that which represents you and also to live presently with that which makes up your being.  Not to try to recreate a two-dimensional image, but to translate a living, breathing subject, an animated being into art – into a piece of work that lives and breathes. When someone views it, they will see in it truth, reflection, introspection, love.  This is the space that I wanted to bring you to.  Now, go.  Have fun.

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