Stick or Ball?

We have a new puppy and this is his first spring. Being old dogs ourselves, we marvel at his excitement about every new little thing he sees or smells. We are teaching him to retrieve a ball – throwing the ball for him to catch and return. He is joyful and interested, chasing and returning it once or twice, but then he’ll get distracted and not quite bring it back to us. Every new smell or new plant poking up, a leaf, even a bird flying overhead grabs his attention and excitement. As in most kinds of training, the teacher can learn as much as the student.

 Oliver II by John Hulsey, watercolor painting.
Oliver II by John Hulsey, watercolor painting.

His puppy behavior can be a metaphor for how the mind works, especially when we are trying to concentrate on important matters, like painting. We start off strong and decisive, keeping our attention on the ball, so to speak. But after awhile, the mind wanders, follows an interesting thought and we get distracted from the larger goal. That’s when we have to call our wandering mind back and retrieve our original inspiration.

The ability to focus the mind and keep it focused seems to be one of life’s most difficult challenges – if mastered, perhaps, one of life’s greatest achievements.

Some find the use of a mantra or mantram (a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation), to be helpful. It is the human version of our puppy’s ball. We are reminded of a wonderful story as told by Eknath Easwaran, founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in California. He wrote:

“There is a Hindu story comparing the mind to the trunk of an elephant – restless, inquisitive, always straying. In our villages in India, elephants are sometimes taken in religious processions through the streets to the temple. The streets are crooked and narrow, lined on either side with fruit and vegetable stalls. Along comes the elephant with his restless trunk, and in one sinuous motion, he grabs a whole bunch of bananas. He opens his cavernous mouth, and tosses the bananas in – stalk and all. From the next stall he picks up a coconut and tosses it in after the bananas. No threats or promises can make this restless trunk settle down. But the wise elephant trainer will give that trunk a short bamboo stick to hold. Then the elephant will walk along proudly, holding the bamboo stick in front like a drum major with a baton. He doesn’t steal bananas and coconuts now, because his trunk has something to hold onto.”

The mind works in the same way. We can keep it from straying into all kinds of situations if we just give it something to hold on to.

Whether we cope with elephant-sized distractions or the joyful excitements of another spring, it is extremely useful to have a simple tool like a mantra at the ready when we set about to create.

–John and Ann

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About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.