Every picture tells a story, and every life tells its story in pictures. I know mine does.
I wasn’t fully aware of the master artist who was painting my story behind an easel that I mistook for a business plan, until I learned how to sit still and listen. You can’t know much about life with your fingers in your ears and scales on your eyes—even worse, with your third eye closed. All you will know is what you see and hear using the limited eyes and ears on your head. Through no fault of the painter’s, though, I let hundreds of occasions to experience the progress of the composition escape me, and each time I did, I squandered an opportunity to participate in the creation process.
The other day I got to thinking about who I was twenty years ago, who I want to be today, and what finally woke me up. It has always taken a drastic situation or event in my life to create a catalyst for enlightenment. It has taken an internal air-horn at times just to remind me that, while I was absorbed in normal day-to-day activities of the temporal sort, the story of my life was being painted in shades of grey. At least, that’s what I thought. It took way too long, but eventually I learned that there was a master artist who had taken over the pallet, adding strokes of color behind my back.
I missed out on watching him paint much of my story—I was too busy admiring the way he painted other stories, the way he added color, texture and depth to their landscapes. I was so distracted by trying to create my own monochrome saga, that I was only distantly aware of the spectrum of blushes and hues he was overlaying with his brush.
Lately, I’ve been more and more aware of the story he painted, and the more I work towards using my internal eyes and ears, the more worthy I become of apprenticeship. I find I am learning and growing . . . and changing.
See, I’ve been thinking about integrity lately. You know how experiencing something unusually beautiful creates the realization that you haven’t seen anything like it in a long time—if ever? Or that you are experiencing something profoundly out of the ordinary? Well, when I saw this master painter again, it was his character that stood out so conspicuously. I was fortunate enough to have experienced it many times throughout the past twenty years, and each time I had the same ardent response. It’s one of those qualities that are so rare in men that you can’t help but take notice and come away affected.
I also couldn’t help noticing that this master artist actually painted into his own life’s picture the attributes of integrity and compassion, and into them he painted a controversial nature—a trait essential to being a man of great character. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of going against the grain to be that way.
I remember once several years ago sitting across from this artist on an airplane discussing the position of one political party in particular. It was the exasperating season before presidential elections and the day following one of the candidate debates. This artist challenged both the ethics of the party itself and the “qualities” of its candidates. Qualities like: the ability to deny truth, the ability to marginalize the concerns of the poor and needy. The ability to whitewash issues concerning the care and preservation of natural resources. You know . . . those kinds of qualities.
A couple of weeks later, I sat across from him again as he scrutinized the other political party: how they devalued the fundamental needs of the underprivileged and how they exploited “patriotism” in order to justify losing lives to gain global power. He argued from both an intellectual position and a human position—both the party and the candidates were despicable by either standard. I recall thinking, he is a fair and balanced man—he dislikes both parties equally. But the more I thought about his position in the context of his own character, I knew that he wasn’t coming from a negative approach at all. He was a master painter—he had mastered the art of honesty. He only knew one way to think and process the character of those who crave power, who coddle their egos, who are skilled at being duplicitous—and that is in light of his own character.
See, this painter hadn’t donned an apron of integrity and compassion in order to judge others; it was simply impossible for him to separate integrity and compassion from his authentic Self. Over time, he had actually become these qualities, and he couldn’t process his thoughts in any other way. It was impossible. Most of us have integrity when it suits us or when we remember to use it. But it’s entirely different when it requires great effort not to use it. Apparently, with integrity and compassion to this degree come true humility, and his skilled brush painted it into each detail of his own life’s picture.
I recall on another occasion this master painter looking out of the window of an airplane observing dark, stormy clouds below while a stunning red sun was setting on the horizon. “Once you fly above the clouds, the sky is always clear and beautiful.” He was speaking both ephemeral and eternal truth. The reality of the physical setting could not be separated from the spiritual setting—he had to observe and experience them at the same time—he could not separate what he saw with his eyes from what he experienced in his soul. How much I could have learned had I only paid more attention—had I only become his apprentice from the start! Here were all these qualities in one man sitting in front of me, and I wasn’t so much as a fledgling yet; I still had scales covering my eyes.
Over the years, there were times when it became very clear to me just who this master painter was, and I have had occasion to introduce him to others. Mostly they knew of his work and admired him, but sometimes I would acquaint those who didn’t by showing his work. There was never a time that I didn’t feel honored; in fact, I would often feel something rather like stage fright—I felt at once unworthy and anxious: I’m not qualified to introduce this great artist. What if the truth about me is discovered? But as soon as my rational self reappeared, I recognized that it had nothing to do with me at all; I had been given a special opportunity—a gift.
The great spiritual teacher Dadi Janki has an interesting perspective on man’s will versus his reason. She argues that we are not reasonable men motivated by emotion; we are emotional men motivated by reason. Because of this, we know what we need to do on an emotional level, but we lack the will to get it done, and since there is no follow-through, the seeds of our convictions fall on rocky ground and they do not take root. Dadi uses the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who made a great effort to achieve independence for the people of India, but only corruption, violence and divisiveness have thrived since his death. Theoretically, the people honored him and his principles—they made him into an icon and celebrated him in words and images—yet they turned their backs on the disciplines and elevated level of consciousness he attained. The principles and truths he taught them never took root in their souls. Gandhi was certainly a great teacher—a master painter—able to inspire and teach, but he couldn’t create a sustained community of great people. And that is what we need so desperately—not for just one person to be great, but for entire families, neighborhoods, cities and nations to be great.
What does all of this have to do with my master painter? Everything. You see, if I sit under the tutelage of this man of integrity and compassion and only learn in theory the truths he has shown through the example of his life—through the strokes and colors of his brush—I am still nothing more than temporal eyes and ears. And even though I recognize the qualities and character in him, I am regarding him as no more than an icon. But, if I sit still and learn from him, if I can become—like he did—the blushes and hues on the canvas, I can become more than an apprentice. I can become a person of character too, and learn to paint integrity and compassion into the story of my own life—into my authentic Self.
And that, I believe, is the evidence of a great and masterful artist. It is also the evidence of a very wealthy apprentice.
— Galyn Kelly Johnson, Satellite Beach, FL, 30 July, 2014