The Art of Being Present

I’ve always thought that making art is like jumping from the edge of a cliff. At the beginning of every new work—and every day of work—is the unknown. Being an artist is being unsure, asking questions, stumbling around with only an inkling of what will manifest and tolerating the fear of hanging out in the unknown. When curiosity and interest become more present than discomfort, the mystery becomes enjoyable and its exploration vivid and vibrant.

Just as in meditation practice, the artist aspires to start fresh, free from past solutions, glories and failures. One begins with emptiness, without a conceptual framework that filters natural impulses, without striving to make a recognizable “product,” simply engaging in a process and getting out of the way of the work.

Each piece presents its own world. Part of making a piece is exploring its principles, listening to what it wants. The sense is that the piece already exists—it’s just a matter of uncovering it.

Naturally, this is easier said than done and some days go more smoothly than others. I remember being in an artists’ colony with an Irish painter who cheerfully announced at dinner that it had been a bad day; nothing had come easily for her. “But,” she said, “I’ll try me hardest again tomorrow.” I remember her statement as I work through my own resistance to sitting down and trying again. That attitude has inherent spaciousness: there is enough time and space for another effort. One could relate it to the willingness in meditation practice to come back again and again to the breath.

The parallels between dharma and making art are many. As the years go on, I realize more and more that there is no separation between the two: making art is a bodhisattva activity. The inner transformation and growth that results from dharma practice flow into the work, and the work in turn becomes an offering.

My artistic process includes three aspects: solitary creative work, work with others developing the piece, and performance. All three aspects involve the paramitas. Discipline, exertion and patience are invoked in the daily solitary work. In my case, this work might involve composing at the piano; producing ideas, images or structures at a desk; generating vocal or movement material in the studio, or editing video. The paramita of generosity begins by working with an “anything-is-possible” mind, allowing whatever arises to be, knowing that discovery comes when least expected. That generosity expands when the material is developed with other performers. Finally we share the vision with the people who experience the piece.

Producing a work is like making soup. You begin with individual vegetables in the soup: carrots are carrots, onions are onions, potatoes are potatoes. Then you put your vegetables into the stock and simmer. For a while, the vegetables are still vegetables, but little by little they become part of the liquid. Finally they boil down to an essence. Nothing extraneous is left, only the inevitable and delicious mixture the soup has become. Similarly, I try to let the elements of a work exist on their own until it is time to put them into a form. Part of the artistic process is distinguishing between the mind of judgment, which anticipates results and cuts off impulses, and the mind of discriminating intelligence, which sees clearly and at the right time what needs letting go.

After working alone for months, sometimes years, creating materials and making sketches of a piece, I begin rehearsing with my ensemble. My practice and study of dharma has helped me to appreciate and honor more than ever this aspect of the work. I begin by presenting the shards of material that I have been creating alone; then we explore its different components, expanding, inverting and transforming them in myriad ways. The rehearsals are lively, raw, and full of laughter and hard work. There is always a sense of sadness when it is time to weave all the elements together: the excitement of potential has now by necessity become a form.

Live performance allows for vulnerability and immediacy. Everyone is in the same place at the same time. Energy moves from performer to audience and back again. During the performances that I remember most vividly, I have been aware of a simultaneous pinpointed focus and expansive openness—there has been no separation between me and what I perform. The other performers have been attuned to the subtlest changes of energy, and we have communicated without words, neither pushing nor pulling in any way.

There is an element of renunciation in this way of working. A performer gives up instant gratification and habitual modes of seeking attention and love. Instead, there is an awareness of immersing oneself in the material and being part of a larger whole. The performers’ honesty and willingness to remain genuine offer the possibility of an openhearted and unmanipulated situation during which the audience can experience transformation. In a sense, the performer becomes transparent, a conduit of fundamental energies and impulses that are beyond discursive thought.

As in dharma practice, creativity means staying present throughout the process; when desperation and anxiety enter, one remembers to go back to the breath, the space, stillness. One moves through delusions of success and failure, fame and humiliation, to an intent to create a work that is of benefit. This process demands the skillfulness, courage, faith and clarity of a warrior. In my experience, meditation practice has only expanded my vision.

Meredith Monk is a composer, singer, filmmaker and director/choreographer who lives in New York City. A pioneer in what is now called “extended vocal technique” and “interdisciplinary performance,” she has created more than200 works.