The doctor said I should spend thirty minutes in a completely dark and quiet room every day. Every day.
He told me that once inside the room, I should not think or plan or do anything until the thirty minutes were up. I should, in his words, “pray or meditate or think of something enjoyable.”
“Make yourself smile,” he said, “and do it every day.”
Every day? Really? He has no idea how busy I am.
“So I’m to do this thirty-minute-rest-in-the-dark thing every day, but for how many days,” I asked.
He laughed. “For the rest of your life,” he said. “It should become a high priority routine – something almost sacred, so that your day is ruined if you delay or ignore your thirty minutes of darkness.”
I tried to shake my vision of the good doctor morphing into a straightjacket-wearing Alice Cooper, singing “The Quiet Room,” from his 1978 release, From the Inside, just for me. Having Alice Cooper sing for me is on my bucket list by the way, but I digress.
I told the doctor that I’d probably fall asleep in the first thirty seconds after entering a dark and quiet room, and he said, while he encouraged midday naps, this exercise was not about taking naps. It was about making a deliberate effort to achieve something beyond sleep. He wanted me to rest intentionally.
When my last attempt at excuse-making was rejected by the doctor’s persistent grin, he said, “The stresses that you described to me depict life that most of us would label a dream life. The problem is, you’ve made yourself too busy to see it. Let yourself see it by resting in it.”
The doctor went on to say that if I made this a daily priority, he guaranteed that everything else I complained about would change. I’ve tried to follow his advice but not consistently. When I do, he is proven right; everything changes. When I allow life to get in the way again, everything changes back.
Recently I stumbled onto an art medium that may help me maintain that priority, even in noisy daylight. Black Friday, November 23, 2012: The day I made my first sumi black ink, a Japanese meditative art method.
The items for ink grinding consist of an ink stick, grinding stone, and a little water. Ink grinding encourages silence because even the sounds of ink stick against grinding stone is a key part of the process. The grinding experience also includes the tactile – the feeling of the objects as they are unpacked and arranged.
After dripping a little water in the grinding stone reservoir, I placed the ink stick vertical onto the stone and slid the stick in a circular motion. That’s it. The motion was repeated until the desired ink-to-water ratio was achieved, which in my case was when I found the rhythm of the grind and began to smile again. If you actually plan to make art with the ink, you will need a towel, drawing paper, and a paint brush or two.
The ink grinding process is profoundly simple, and just like that phrase, full of contradictions. The plain rectangular block of black ink is covered with ornate and intricate designs and symbols. The correct amount and consistency of ink is attainable but elusive. The making of ink from scratch requires resistance and persistence. It is force and pressure against a breakable object. The goal is in pursuing the goal. Take all the time you want, but never let the ink dry on the grinding stone or ink stick.
There’s magic in mindless repetition. That I know. There’s a level of meditation and clarity of thought I have trouble experiencing any other way. It’s one of the main reasons I love to wash dishes by hand. Most of my problems were solved at the kitchen sink or while doing wet plate collodion. I think it’s found in those wonderful manual labor chores, like cutting and polishing glass, mixing chemicals, and varnishing finished plates. The same phenomenon applies to sumi ink grinding.
Each rotation of the ink stick, each vibration of stick resisting as it released pigment, the progress of clear water turning saturated black, a new substance appearing from a stick that appears unchanged, it all has a healing quality, or at least a way of putting everything into perspective. I am in complete control of the rate of rotation and the pressure I apply, yet my only real choice is in rotating the stick clockwise or counter-clockwise. When you’re finished grinding ink, you’ve created a saturated black blend of ink that is the same used in history’s writings and paintings for almost the past two thousand years.
The benefit of ink making is two-fold. Not only do you have a hand-made custom blend of high quality permanent ink to use in your art, but more importantly, you have the proper frame of mind to start making what could be your best work. Even if you don’t work in inks, the ink and grinding stone is a small price to pay for a new mindset for whatever you create. If you never plan on using the ink you make, make it anyway.
Many thanks to the doctor for his advice. Without it, I may not have discovered the healing meditative effects of ink making. The doctor also said to stay away from fast foods, eat only fresh or frozen items, and back off of the coffee intake. OK doc, let’s not get too crazy here! Stop stressing me out!
Go make stuff!