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My Journey Toward Writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts
by Nicolee McMahon

Practice of Immediacy painting by Nicolee McMahon

Practice of Immediacy painting by Nicolee McMahon

My journey toward writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts ® is a weaving of Zen, shamanic training, art, and not knowing. To best exemplify how a few of these threads weave together is when I got lost while camping in the desert with my family several years ago.

We all got up early to go bouldering about ten minutes away from the campsite. As I was climbing a large rounded, grainy boulder I began to feel dizzy. At the top of the boulder, the dizziness continued, along with nausea, and the desire to throw up. I shimmied down the boulder and we all waited for my dehydration symptoms to settle. The faces of my family were full of concern for me and also for the desire to go exploring. I told them I was feeling better and I’d stay behind. My children asked if they could walk me back to the campsite, but in my stoic, ‘I can handle this’ style, I said I’d be fine. They told me to follow the sandy wash path back to the campsite when I was ready. I sat on a rocky ledge in the shade of the boulder and watched them as they continued on their exploratory hike.

After sitting quietly for a while, I had a desire to see the beauty of my family walking together in the distance. I eased myself off the ledge and walked five to ten minutes on the path I believed they had taken twenty minutes earlier. I could not see them and walked up to higher ground to see if that would give me a better view. There was still no sign of them. Deciding to go back to camp, I found what I believed was the sandy path they had mentioned. I followed it but was led to boulders instead of the campsite. I knew to go south by following the sun, and continued looking for the path we had all walked on before. But each path took me to new boulders, and more dead ends. I had half a bottle of water, two protein bars, and an electrolyte mineral packet in my pocket. After two hours of walking, the terrain was becoming more and more unrecognizable. No humans, no human foot prints, just coyote, rabbit, sheep, and large cat tracks. At that moment I knew I was lost. I began yelling, “Help! I’m lost.” I drew two-foot arrows with the heels of my shoes, hoping they could be seen from the air should a plane come searching for me later. The arrows were also markers to let me know if I was walking in circles. It was dry and hot and I had no idea where to turn. I felt fear, but did not give into it. I needed calm steadiness to tap into my resources to get me through this journey. I was aiming west, as that was the direction from which we had entered Joshua Tree Park the day before. I had been walking about three hours judging by the position of the sun. I had one protein bar and poured the electrolyte packet into my water bottle, sipping only enough to wet my parched mouth.

I remembered how I had ‘lined up’ to find where to make my medicine wheel dur- ing the three vision quests I had done years before. Lining up is a very deep and practical practice where one can ask a simple question and learn answers from areas of the body. If there is no agreement among the areas, one can learn what that is about, but the main point is not to proceed until one is lined up. I applied that knowledge each time I needed to make a decision about where to turn in this convoluted journey west. Finally, I found a path full of human shoe prints and bicycle tracks, but no people. The sun’s position indicated it was at about 4 p.m. I felt such relief and laughed, as I followed what felt like the yellow brick road. The undulating line of the bicycle wheel was like a rope that could pull me forward. “Help! I’m lost!” The sun was getting lower on the horizon and I wondered how I could keep myself warm in the frigid temperature of the desert night wearing a light shirt and tank top. Eating half of the second protein bar and drinking a sip of water, I saw the weakness of my stoicism, and “I can do it” attitude. Realizing I could die in the cold desert night, while asking the universe for help, I surrendered to something very deep within. All of a sudden I felt my whole body fill with light.

Fifteen minutes later I saw a man, carrying his gear, walking toward me. His name was Marcos. He had not been to Joshua Tree in ten years, but had had an impulse earlier in the day to come and take pictures of the landscape in the full moonlight. When I told him I had turned seventy two days before, had been walking for five plus hours and was lost, he willingly helped me. We walked a mile to his car talking about our backgrounds and interests. Although he drove me to the campsite, he wanted to get back to the trail and quickly left. Reunited with my concerned and happy family, I sat before the firepit, slowly drank two pints of water, had dinner and rested in the warmth of family, as the cold desert night circled around us.

Getting lost, and finding my way, informed me deeply. The experience gathered my many years of Zen training, my decade of studying with female shamans, and my deep trust of the great unknown. It was one of those rare experiences that is so direct there is no time to wonder, no time to give meaning to a situation — just the raw immediacy of now. And that raw immediacy of now is what the practice of immediacy in the arts® (PIA) is about.

Writing a book about the practice of immediacy in the arts was like being called to participate in a dance with steps I didn’t know, and yet I knew the steps once I started writing. The structure of the book happened within the first two hours of my week stay in a writer’s cabin. The following ten months integrated writing, working, relationships, retreats and letting my mind wander. The book is an accumulation of twenty years exploring the practice of immediacy in the arts and discovering ways of accessing creative flow through the cacophony of what’s emerging within and without right now. The beauty of the practice is that it also cultivates awareness, openness, not knowing, broad inclusiveness, trust and curiosity.

PIA was born into my world in the mid-1990s. I had a profound experience during Stan Grof’s holotropic breath work. Shamanic drumming music is an essential ingredient of this practice. While doing the breath work and moving to the drumming, all my energy centers lined up and from the top of my head I felt a creative energy drop into my body, move out the bottom of my torso, and in my mind’s eye the creative energy circled the world. I had no idea what this meant, but I was intrigued and began exploring different ways of learning about it. As I had been training in Zen since 1980, the soil in which the practice of immediacy in the arts could take root was full of rich nutrients.

Zen

What was this soil like? Attending to the ever-changing unfolding moment had been developed through many years of daily meditation on my own, and later, in long Zen retreats. Meditation honed my attention, helping me to look into the fluid, interconnected empty nature of myself and the phenomenal world. I learned to open to not knowing, and became ‘stupid,’ by letting go of fixed notions through years of koan practice. What emerged was a deep appreciation of the wonder and ordinary oneness of living.

My Zen journey began at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. I lived a householder life two hours away, and needed a different model than what had been passed down for cen- turies: the belief that true practice cannot be done unless one leaves home—Dharma first and family second. Buddha set the example two-plus millennia earlier by leaving his wife and baby — before phones, cars, the Internet, planes and accessible teachers were as available as they are now.

To keep my family together and to pursue what was deeply true for me, I would need to find ways to live in both the everyday world of family life and the Zen world. The resolution came upon reading Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Japanese Zen master’s writing:

If [you] throw [yourself] into whatever the situation truly calls for then both the activity and the method by which [you] carry it out will naturally work to nurture the seeds of the buddha dharma.”

Seeing that the buddha dharma, the realization of the Buddha’s teaching, is each mo- ment of my life, resolved my inner tension — I was fully engaged in my family and in Zen training — they were not two.

Wanting to clarify my understanding and resolve my doubts, I was steady in practice and in letting go of how and when such clarification would happen. Thus began dedicated koan practice, weekly commutes to train with my teacher and attending six- plus weeklong retreats per year for fifteen years.

My Zen teacher, Maezumi Roshi, was very encouraging of women’s practice. I always felt deeply seen and supported by him and the Zen community. Women and men were mixed together in the meditation hall. Women were not prevented from training with men as they were in Japan. Of his twelve successors, four of us are women. He was a very good gardener in the actual garden, and with his students. He would clip, water, prune, and challenge. If I was sticking to oneness, he would throw me to everyday functioning — back and forth, back and forth, until there was no difference. He died in 1995, three months after he gave me Transmission (teacher empowerment). I’m number eleven of his twelve successors.

After his passing, I needed to find my way of sharing what I had learned and realized in the many years of training with Maezumi Roshi. The creative arts have been part of my life since I was a child — music, drawing, painting, and beading. But when I began Zen training, I put art aside as raising a family, going back to school to become a marriage and family therapist, and doing intensive Zen practice were all consuming. But now I wanted art back in my life. By the late 1990s, although struggling with breaking the format of retreats, I decided to bring PIA into retreats — especially as I could now articulate what the practice of immediacy was about.

In retreats, we noticed that PIA deepened meditation, participants were more alert, and the overall retreat environment was quieter. PIA seems to cut through the need to control, as whatever emerges in one’s awareness is included. Retreat participants

were discovering their creativity. One person found his poetic capacity. Another was a musician who hadn’t passed his masters exam. He took to PIA and practiced daily, opening up an inner space so that when he took his exam again, he didn’t freeze up — if he was self-critical he just included it. He passed his exam with ease.

The practice of immediacy in the arts organically teaches the uniqueness of each moment and that each moment is equal to the next—each moment is what it is, regardless of our views. You learn to swim in the midst of things no matter what your ideas, fears, opinions are, no matter what is going on in the environment. Whether one meditates or not, PIA offers an understanding we don’t normally get in our lives and can help us be more present.

The rich soil of Zen training brought forth essential elements of the practice of immediacy in the arts: opening to not knowing, attending to what is at hand, including whatever is occurring, and including expectations instead of being hindered by them. Another soil enrichment would come from my shamanic training: following how energy flows.

SHAMANIC STUDIES

I believe it is important for a spiritual teacher to be a student in some area of one’s life. But after Maezumi Roshi died, I wasn’t ready to pursue being a student again for a while. When the time came, I wanted to learn about the shamanic traditions — I’d had a powerful dream in the late 1980’s that seeded this interest:

I am standing in a poorly lit room. Opposite me, sitting in a chair, is a shaman who is throwing a small round ball of light at me. I catch and throw the light ball back to him. Each time I am able to do this, he increases the strength of the light ball. We continue like this for about ten rounds. Finally he throws a light ball that I know is too powerful for me to return and I quickly go into a nearby bathroom and crawl out of a window. I awakened from the dream. I knew I needed to face the light ball I had tried to escape. I went back to sleep and was at the same place as before I’d awakened. The now large light ball came directly at me, but instead of catching it, the ball entered me and I became a body of light.

At the beginning of the new millennia, I heard about a female shaman, and began training with her, a training that did not involve plant medicine or any hallucinogenic substances.” As I was entering a tradition I knew nothing about, beginner’s mind and becoming a student by surrendering to this new teacher was how I began. With ‘soul retrieval’ (a shamanic journey method), she brought back many parts of myself from my birth to adulthood. I began to feel much fuller as a woman. I created a medicine wheel at the side of my house where I drummed and journeyed. Journeying is a powerful modality that brings a great deal of understanding and can enable rapid gathering of knowledge for one’s own life or another’s.

Through training with her, I learned about female power, capacity, and influence in a completely new way. She began a woman’s group with her other students where we learned many female practices, such as how to become the elements of nature, to hear and talk with the natural world, to gather information by ‘lining up,’ to trust life and what was unfolding, to make our home a place of well-being and beauty. We learned to deeply appreciate men and the differences between men and women. Instead of listening just at a mental and emotional level, we learned to listen at a deeper level to ourselves, men, children, others, and the natural world. She encouraged us to see that everything was sacred, to live with no regrets, to be fearless and open to what was scaring us (as it is probably ‘juicy.’) She emphasized that vulnerability and love are at the heart of female power and wisdom.

When she began taking us on vision quests, we trained for a year, doing daily cere- monies at our home medicine wheels. In May we would go to the La Jolla Indian campground near San Diego where we each stayed alone in nature for up to three nights and four days. On the vision quest, to find the location for creating my medicine wheel, I ‘lined up,’ using the practice the medicine woman had shown us. I had many experiences on my three vision quests and was profoundly informed beyond words. After over seven years studying with her, I knew it was time to leave. I gave her three gifts expressing my profound gratitude for all that she had given and done for me.

In 2011 I went to Peru and was very moved by a Q’ero shaman I met in El Valle Sagrado. A few years after I returned home, I found a woman trained in the Peruvian Q’ero shamanic tradition to study with and learned about the Q’ero medicine wheel. During this time I had another guiding dream:

I am standing, looking at the steep side of a desert mountain of rock and sand. The tan and earth colored striations on the side of the mountain were quite beautiful. Suddenly, the shape of a stone man began to emerge from the area I was looking at. He looked like a man made out of rock, walking in an angular, jaunty manner, waving to me to follow him. Walking behind him, we entered a well-lit cave that went deep into the earth.

The dream awakened an intuitive understanding of cuyas, sacred stones that are central to working with the Q’ero medicine wheel. I practice with them to this day, intuiting where the cuyas belong on the medicine wheel that lies on top of a red woven cloth purchased from the shaman in the Sacred Valley in Peru.

The shamanic traditions connected me in a new way to mother earth, to my deep knowing, to how energy flows, to the rhythms of the earth, to the animal and plant worlds, to the elements, to the directions, and to aspects of the unseen world beyond what the rational mind can hold. My Zen teacher might have called what I was learning ‘makyo,’ which means ‘illusion or hallucination’ in Japanese. Trusting my intuition, I knew I was not interested in being a shaman, yet I was learning ways of perceiving that were helping me in my life, my art, my work, and with my students.

The shamanic practices broadened my understanding of how to pay attention to the flow of energy, and that extended to the practice of immediacy in the arts in following a creative flow (www.practiceofimmediacy.com/pia-videos to witness PIA). Of the five simple directions for PIA, creative flow is the last guidance:

  • find the medium you want to work in
  • open to not knowing
  • include and express what you are aware of as it shows up
  • express expectations as they are occurring
  • if you enter a creative flow, follow its unfolding

These directions emerged as I explored what PIA was about. By practicing with the above directions, my own art has deepened and released creativity I would never have imagined. A friend who was visiting looked at the paintings hanging on the walls and asked, “Who are all the different artists?” He didn’t know I had painted them and rather than answering, I asked him what his impressions were of the art. He remarked that the paintings were all so different from one another. The differences are what amazes me too—by following the PIA directions, what emerges is a unique coming together of the moment in creative form. This also happens with writing, music, and dance/movement.

APPLICATION

To study without applying what’s been learned is like eating a meal without digesting it. But how is what we’ve digested applied? Over the years, PIA has taught me so much, and even though there is a website where anyone can see how to do the practice, I kept having an inner push to write a book about the practice of immediacy in the arts. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer, so I resisted this “hand on my back” pushing me into an unknown direction. But I knew at some point I needed to apply what I’d learned in book form so that PIA could be available for others to learn about. There’s a Zen koan: How do you step off a 100’ pole? Stepping off the pole captures what writing the book initially felt like. The answer to the metaphorical question, of course, is: just take that step.

I began my journey toward writing the Arte of Now: Practice of Immediacy in the Arts by saying it is a weaving of Zen, shamanic training, art, and not knowing. Although not knowing is an essential part of both Zen and shamanic understanding, an experience when I was ten created a profound sense of how not knowing can lead us right to where we need to be:

My mother, stepfather, and I moved to Acapulco before it was developed. We were staying at a friend’s apartment. I was in school but barely understood Spanish. I knew we were going to move to another place and my mother had told the school bus driver to drop me off at the new locale. Her Spanish wasn’t very good yet. Instead the bus driver dropped me off at our friend’s apartment. I thought that maybe there was a change in plans, and got off the bus. When I walked up stairs, all the furniture was gone, no one was in the apartment and no one else was around. I truly did not know what to do, but I started walking. Three miles later I had walked right to my mother who was waiting for the bus to drop me off. She was shocked. I could not explain to her how I found her.

The not knowing of this experience was pregnant with all kinds of possibilities. Anything could have happened. But at ten years old, it opened in me an understanding that we really do not know what is going to happen next. We live in possibility.

The threads of not knowing, Zen, the practice of immediacy in the arts and my shamanic studies taught me to dance with the energies at hand. Zen training created good growing soil, and the shamanic studies helped me feel how the energy was moving so I could be a better gardener for this simple yet powerful creative practice.

Let me end with a famous Zen story in which two old teachers were asking and answering one another’s question

“Where are you going?”
“Around on pilgrimage.”
“What’s the purpose of the pilgrimage?”
“I don’t know.”
 “Not knowing is the most intimate.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicolee McMahon

Nicolee McMahon, Roshi, is a Dharma heir of Zen Master Taizan Maezumi, Roshi. She is co-founder of the Three Treasures Zen Community in San Diego, California. She is semi-retired but continues to co-lead retreats several times a year. She has been creative throughout her life, and after an unusual experience, she developed the Practice of Immediacy in the Arts (PIA). She is married, and has two grown children, a stepson, and four grandchildren. She is also semi-retired as a Marriage and Family Counselor.

Read more articles by Nicolee McMahon.

All original work attributed to Nicolee McMahon © 2017 Nicolee McMahon.

Robert Althouse

Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago, 38 Lake Street, Oak Park, IL, 60302