Ancient philosophers talked about the good life.
The good life is a sort of craft – the Greeks used the word techne. A call from and response to the world around us, requiring adaptation and contextual awareness. The blacksmith, for example, carefully integrates understanding of his material’s malleability, the temperature of his fire, and the resistance of his anvil in hammering out metal goods. Crafts, nay arts, are doings. These aren’t things that are thought about in the abstract. They require the thoughtful and active integration of material conditions in one’s world in order to produce an put forth or express a product. Likewise, the good life, is an active process in which one’s life is carefully crafted like a work of art.
But somewhere along the way philosophers began talking about what it means to live morally - searching for the correct set of rules or principles to which ones’ behavior or internal compass must conform. Kant is most famous for this with his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” It’s a rather wordy command, that suggests that we ought to take no actions that give rise to logical contradictions. For example, the notion that “stealing is acceptable” is immoral, since stealing wouldn’t be possible in a world where everyone was stealing from everyone all of the time – it would result in a logical contradiction. Ergo, stealing is morally wrong. What is wrong is always wrong and what is good is always good. We can determine right and wrong, good and bad without any reference to the conditions in which a person lives.
Understanding morality this way is certainly a tidy way to look at the world. But humans are full of contradictions. For example, in one moment I might desire your approval, while in the next I could care less of what you think of me. Some might even say that the contradictory nature of our desires and thoughts are the distinguishing feature of what it means to be human. It is certainly one of the things that makes human beings such fascinating creatures. Humans grow, change, and adapt. We look back on the past in light of new experiences and rethink what those past events mean to us. We look into the future with the baggage of past experiences coloring what we see in front of us. We very often have our minds made up only to let all our old ideas go in the face of a new feeling, experience, or idea, and reform our minds again and again over the courses our lives. Very often we are confronted with experiences thrust upon us by conditions outside of our control, and we are forced to grow and adapt to accommodate these changes.
If we suppose that a “good” life can be understood in moral terms – that is right and wrong – we run the risk of losing what it means to be human at all. Because as much pain as there might exist in growth and change, there is also a great deal of beauty.
Over the course of my life I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and coaching a number of women through life challenges. Of watching them crawl through suffering, wash out their wounds, and trudge along. Inevitably, I find a moment in which we are sitting across the table from one another laughing about something completely inconsequential. And there she is. A fully realized human being, flourishing in her own right. It’s like a dance, an artform, to watch another person begin to integrate the pieces of their lives and reorganize their own narrative moving from tragic victim to laughing friend. It’s a dance that invites us to participate ourselves, reconsidering our own stories and rewriting our own endings.
Living morally is living abstractly – divorced from the world in ivory towers determining what is right and wrong for everyone. Living beautifully, crafting a good life, is done in concert with the world in which we live and each another, taking the time to integrate life lessons, and opening our hearts to grow. To rewrite our own unique stories and invite others to do the same.
What makes something art? When we walk into an art museum, what do we see? Paintings, sculpture, perhaps some ancient pottery or baskets. They are shelved on glass-cased pedestals or housed in frames in a building surrounded by kept grounds and large parking lots. To experience these items is an event. Perhaps something undertaken as a Saturday afternoon treat. They exist outside of my everyday existence. Separated and categorized as products of “fine art” that are distinct from the things or experiences that populate my life the rest of the days of the week.
The invention of fine art is relatively new, with Charles Batteux coining the phrase “beaux arts” in 1746, grouping together what we now think of as “fine arts.” Certain forms of art such as painting, and sculpture became distinct from craftsmanship on the basis that the former exist only to inspire contemplation of beauty, while the latter had function and purpose. Over time these fine arts were gathered up and deposited in a museum. Even though much of what we see in museums doesn’t conform to this Enlightenment era idea that art is exclusively for the contemplation of beauty, Batteux’s legacy is intact, in that we often think of these things as fundamentally separate from our everyday experience. They are much more special and somehow distant from us. For me this has manifested in thoughts like, “I’m no artist,” or “I’m not a creative person.”
I couldn’t do what those artists were doing.
However, for most of history there hasn’t been a distinction between fine art and crafts. Rather, works of art were intimately tied to a historical period and existed in a cultural context. Music and poetry came from monasteries written for religious services, metal smiths forged incredible items in the name of wars, and detailed pottery was crafted for service in fine dinners. The artistic act has been intimately tied to daily life for most of human history, existing in a complex network of social, cultural, and historical conditions.
So, in order to understand what art is, we might first ask what constitutes human experience. A heady question, I know. Upon reflection of my own experiences it's a mishmash of anxiety, depression, joy, excitement, anticipation, gratitude, sorrow and more. Often, it is all of these things at the same time. It’s the tension between bringing the component feelings, people, places, and ideas together in resolution. It’s the integration of these moments of past regret and future anticipation into the present, when I’m most fully alive. When I find myself keenly aware of the way in which the past informs me and how the possibility of the future exists like a halo in the present moment, watching a sunset, or listening to the frogs jump in the pond, that is when I am most fully experiencing life in the moment. It’s what John Dewey calls an experience. It is the refined form of everyday experience, in which each component of that experience, whether its physical, emotional, or temporal are harmoniously interwoven and complimentary.
Art then, is concerned with living. It is the process of weaving thoughts, events, and feelings into that moment of integration. It encompasses the tension we feel in attempting to piece together what feel like disparate ideas and competing feelings, as they are brought together in the present moment. This is fundamentally what the artist does – she applies paint to the canvas, stands back and readjusts, picking up a new color or medium in response to what is felt from the canvas. It’s a process of interplay, adjustment, harmonizing, acting, and reacting until each component part comes together in just the right balance. The act of the artist is no different than the integration that occurs for each of us when we struggle through the tension to find the right balance in any given present moment.
At the end of the day, although our mediums may vary, we are all capable of being artists, because artistry is not about housing pieces in museums, it is about how we live our lives. The tension and resolution may occur for some in the studio, for others it may take place in the garden, or in listening to the frogs jump in the pond while reading John Dewey. Or it may take place while watching the sun set behind the mountains in northern Thailand while writing a blog, considering the events that led me to this moment, what it means for my future, the sounds of the crickets, and dinner being washed up beneath me in the stillness of the evening, punctuated by the chanting of monks in a nearby temple, in solitude and peace. Although I am surrounded by paints, canvases, ceramics, its these moments in which I am most fully alive, crafting life as a work of art.
When I was twenty years old, I woke up one morning and knew I had to get a tattoo. I made the decision in a blend of peer pressure (my childhood best friend just got several) and being hungover. I knew that, whatever I got, I’d have to place it somewhere I could hide it; I chose my right hip. My friend Heather and I made our way to Artistic Dermographics in Boardman, OH and I looked through scores of design books. I asked myself: “If this thing is going to be on my body forever, what wouldn’t I mind having on me at 90?” I found a lovely design—a purplish peace lily growing out of a peace sign. I loved it because I love peace. The image also represented a bit of rebellion against an Evangelical church I was just coming out of that condemned the peace sign as somehow anti-Christian.
I loved getting my first tattoo! Call me weird, I found the pressure of the needles very relaxing; it put me to sleep! While others have hurt like hell (the foot and upper middle back being the worst), there are such wonderful memories accompanying every tattoo—beautiful connections to their meanings, and what I was going through in life during each of them. To look at me you wouldn’t think I’d be too into ink. All my tattoos are in places I could cover if I had to although the older I’m getting and the less I care what others think, the less I want to cover them!
My latest tattoo led to a fascinating discussion with a friend that got the wheels in my head turning about tattoos and their meanings to the individual. Tattoo #8, on my left upper back, is my favorite poem “Blessed is the Match” by Hannah Senesh. I’ve written about my connection to her and this poem on the blog before. Quite frankly, I’ve yearned for some reminder of this poem and its meaning to me on my body for years. I thought about getting a match tattoo, a flame, or the poem in English, but nothing ever resonated. On a recent visit to Israel, a friend shared an online photo of the poem in her original handwriting from 1944. As soon as I saw it, I knew that this was the tattoo. This experience parallels the one I’ve had with every other tattoo on my body. I typically sit with an idea but then wait until the exact design hits me like lightning!
It’s not lost on me that tattoos are generally taboo in traditional Judaism. Between their forbiddance in strict interpretations of kosher law and the historical associations around tattoos as branding emerging from the tragic legacy of the Holocaust, I did reflect on what it would mean for me—a non-Jew—to get this piece permanently affixed on my body. And from these contemplations and meditations arose many of the thoughts I share in this piece.
In my reflections, it dawned on me what all my tattoos have in common. They all represent protector figures—people or ideas that I know exist within me and in the spiritual realm that support me in my healing journey. We talk about protector figures quite a bit in trauma-focused therapy. It means a great deal to my expressive arts therapist soul to have several of my figures literally with me on my body—the peace lily which I came to associate with St. Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”), the Blessed Mother (my foot), St. Hildegard of Bingen (upper back and left forearm), Khaleesi from Game of Thrones (back of the neck), and the ideals of music, art, dance, and yoga (upper right back). The next one I am planning (the art is still in process) will likewise reflect the wisdom of another protector figure.
In addition to the protector figure quality, all my tattoos represent a life credo, a sacred message that transformed me when I received it and highlighted itself as a truth I needed to embrace. The most powerful example is a Latin saying on my left forearm: vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of the natural state). I received this teaching in Bingen, Germany while on a Hildegard retreat and pilgrimage in 2016 and I knew instantly that I had to get this anthem of authenticity placed on my left side (where we in the West wear wedding rings), right along the heart line. I see the message often on my arm when I dance and practice yoga. I smile at the reminder that embracing the fullness of my authentic self ultimately freed me from bondage. When people ask me what the saying means, I delight to share the translation and its teaching. The unexpected gift of tattoos is to educate others when curiosity leads them to ask questions, just as I have learned much from other people when I ask about their tattoos. In the two weeks since I got “Blessed is the Match,” I told Hannah’s story to dozens of people who asked about it. Not enough people know about Hannah and her heroism and more people need to, and if my tattoo can help me to share it, I am glad it can serve that higher purpose.
In my reflections I also realized that if I were to die tomorrow, whoever found me could look at my body and know what I stood for. In these scary times in which we find ourselves, where the different are persecuted—where a Hannah Senesh-level stand may be required of me someday—there is no hiding who I am and what I am about. I strategically placed the tattoo on my neckline for this reason. My neck bears the phrase Be a Dragon, the guidance given to my favorite feminist icon Daenerys Targaryan (Khaleesi) in the televised Game of Thrones saga. I’ve long adored dragons as misunderstood wonders of the mythological realm, and when George R.R. Martin literally gave me a badass dragon queen to admire through his work, the universe smiled upon me.
In Season 7 Lady Olena, another badass feminist, warns Daenerys not to play small for the men. She declared, “The men of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” I wept, trembled, sobbed, and ugly cried in every possible way when this scene played in the early summer of 2017. I knew that if the current U.S. political regime and the forces it represents would ever come after my head either literally or figuratively, I want this message to be the last thing that they see. Many others around the globe choose the neckline for this reason and I take great pride in following their example in honoring my life path on my body, in my heart, and with my soul.
Many of you reading this piece have your own stories of experience, empowerment, and meaning connected to your tattoos. Please consider sharing them in the comments below or, if you wish, submit your story to me as I work with expanding this series on Tattoos and Trauma Recovery. Please send any submissions to: email@example.com. You may choose to be credited for your contribution or remain anonymous.
Photography: Mary Riley
We hear a lot about the dangers of being judgmental in many wellness and recovery circles. And in a colloquial sense it speaks to us. No one likes a judgmental jerk. That person who constantly insists they are right in all matters and anyone who doesn’t conform to their beliefs or way of doing things is somehow less than, fundamentally wrong, or just plain stupid. Many of us probably judge ourselves more than others, beating ourselves up with negative self-talk. I’m guilty of telling myself I look terrible in this photo, or chastising myself for not getting some important task completed earlier. We can even internalize these judgments so much that we suppose we are bad people at our core.
So much has been written about the problems of being judgmental and how we ought to suspend judgment or stop it all together. With all the problems surrounding judgments and all the pain it can cause us, I am still going to propose something a little radical: The ability to make judgments, and discernments, may just be an innate fact about the human experience. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not necessarily such a bad thing. To explain myself, I’d like to refer you to my favorite classical Chinese text, the Zhuangzi. Zhuang Zhou, from whom the text takes its name, lived in the third century, BCE in ancient China. The book that bears his name is a delightful romp of riddles, vivid imagery, talking animals, meditations on life and death, and some really well thought out discussions about why we humans run into trouble with one another and ourselves.
First, a quick biology lesson according to ancient China: the heart (xin 心) was considered the seat of both cognition and emotion. Today we often talk about the difference between the intellectual or rational brain and emotional heart. For the Ancient Chinese, there wasn’t a qualitative difference. The heart was considered the seat of both thinking and feeling. Insofar as the heart was responsible for intellectual thought, it was thought to issue judgments. More accurately, the heart picks out things in the world discerning them from other things. For example, it deems this keyboard I’m typing on to be distinct from all of the other non-keyboard things surrounding me, like my desk or the accumulated dirty coffee mugs, receipts, and folders. Zhuangzi talks about the heart’s picking things out, or the judgments we make, in terms of Shi (是) and fei (非). When I shi something, I’m affirming it – it’s like saying “THIS keyboard!” When I fei something, I’m denying it, like saying as I point to my coffee mug “THAT IS NOT the keyboard.” These judgments are how we organize our world. They are how I know which road is safe and which is not, what things are poisonous and which are edible, what person, place or thing might be harmful, and which are helpful. The very act of making judgments is an innate a useful tool of the human psyche, straight from the heart.
Zhuangzi recognizes that these judgments aren’t without their problems. A stark fact about these judgments is that they are fundamentally dependent upon a person’s perspective. For example, standing nearer to a mountain, I would judge it to be large, while you, further away, look at it think, “gee, that’s small”. Where we are, in the physical, historical, cultural, social, and emotional senses shapes our judgments. Given the context dependent nature of our judgments, and the belief systems, ideas and ethics they give rise to, Zhuangzi asks us to remember that shi and fei, this and that, right and wrong, are merely useful linguistic categories, and not absolutes. That’s where problems arise.
Zhuangzi explains, “If a man sleeps in a damp place, his back aches and he ends up half paralyzed, but is this true of a loach? If he lives in a tree, he is terrified and shakes with fright, but is this true of a monkey? Of these three creatures, then, which one knows the proper place to live?” (trans. 1968). What is ‘right’ from one perspective may not be applicable in all circumstances. Zhuangzi is concerned about the tendency toward over confidence in one’s capacity to make “correct” judgments, when in fact these judgments are not reflective of some mind-independent state of affairs. Ultimately this can lead to undesirable consequences. Using the text’s example, if the loach tried to enforce his standards upon a man, the man would end up half paralyzed! Zhuangzi cautions us about supposing that our judgments are absolutely right independent of ourselves. We find conflict when we suppose that what we have uncovered really is the case, instead of treating our judgments like the useful tools they are, helping us navigate and make sense of the world. Conflict occurs when we elevate those judgments to the level of doctrine.
Ultimately Zhuangzi asks us to “fast the heart”. What the heck does this mean? While there are plenty of academics who might disagree with me, I’ve got the sense he’s just asking us to mellow out. If it’s a biological fact about us that we make judgments, the heart also has the capacity to revise these judgments as we encounter new experiences and events in the world. It means that instead of issuing judgments and treating them like dogma, the proper use of the heart is to critically evaluate our beliefs, to help us think in new ways, to grow, to discard old ideas, and to constantly find better ways of making sense of the changing world around us. To me, fasting the heart means to quit feeding it BS that makes us feel like we need to have it all figured out, and instead be open to growth, changing our minds, and forming new ideas and judgments as we journey on through life. It means that everyone has a story, a background, and a context and it allows us to treat each other as human beings on a journey, rather than condemn them as fools who don’t or won’t get it.
Long before I’d ever read the Zhuangzi I remember being inundated with talk about judgments and being judgmental. On the one hand, I knew I could be a little snarky cynical, and it was true that those were areas I needed to improve upon. On the other hand, I felt like I had some brain power and how could it be the case that I wasn’t supposed to or equipped to make judgments? An incredibly wise woman told me, “You can judge all you want, that’s how to know to stick with the winners – the people who have something in their lives that you want. What you can’t do is condemn. The only time we look down on someone is if we are helping them back up.” It made a lot of sense to me at the time, but has only become more profound over the years. What she meant, and what I believe Zhuangzi intends to convey, is that life is tough enough already. We have the capacity and ability to find what kind of life works the best for each of us and grow and renew ourselves each day. If we can help someone up, rather than condemning them along the way, it makes the journey all the more worthwhile.
Zhuangzi and Burton Watson (1968). The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. Translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press.
Dr. Mary Riley currently administers the offices of The Institute for Creative Mindfulness and works as an assistant/manager to Dr. Jamie Marich. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the National University of Singapore, specializing in warring states period in China.
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