Some people pick up their tools; others become the making itself.
The Rodin museum in Paris is perhaps my favorite museum in the world.
I love Rodin because of the way he captured facial expressions, or the angle at which he placed heads and hands. His work was intricate but simple, daring but traditional, passionate but contemplative.
His sculptures are housed in and around his former residence, which is a work of art in itself. While appreciating the carved stone and molded bronze, my attention often drifted away to admire the ornate doorframes and chandeliers adorning the rooms. The immaculate gardens outside also provided the setting for many contemplative strolls.
I imagined Rodin standing in front of a chunk of marble and hearing the cry of the lovers trapped inside, yearning to be relieved of the burden encasing them.
I could see him looking into a puddle of mud and glimpsing the delicate face of a young woman staring back at him.
The way in which Rodin (and all sculptors) bring out the beauty that has been there all along is a powerful metaphor for contemplative inner work. All spiritual traditions describe the tremendous potential we have lurking just beneath the coarse layers of predictable, animal behavior. Whether we describe this as enlightened, awakened, God, or Christ consciousness, the message is that there is something immeasurably beautiful just waiting to emerge from inside us, like form from the rock.
But what exactly is in there? And how do we bring that out?
If we want to know the potential masterpiece we have within ourselves, we need only look at the ways in which awakened beings live their lives. Regardless of tradition, we find examples of people who have lived with perfect patience, generosity, and love, who in their own unique ways “turned the other cheek” and offered compassion to the marginalized and rejected.
Anyone who has tried for any length of time to develop these qualities and live in this way knows that it’s easier said than done!
Fortunately, those masters have left behind precise instructions for how we can liberate the hidden masterpiece within us.
In life as in art, there are certain techniques you’d be advised to follow if you’re committed to actualizing latent potential. With sculpture, you’ll never get anywhere if your chisel is flailing around all over the place, or if its moving over the same line again and again.
In our lives, we often act in unmindful, habitual ways that bring suffering to ourselves and others. Acting on selfish desires is like scratching a groove in a rock that gets deeper with every repetition: the more we give into them, the stronger they become. “Just one more time, just one more time”: this is the ego’s refrain, the phrase it repeats in order to justify indulging in behaviors that won’t actually lead to lasting happiness.
On some level, we all have the wisdom to recognize that a life dedicated to seeking temporary thrills makes it difficult to live up to our highest potential. We like to tell ourselves that the satisfaction that’s eluded us in all previous attempts will finally come by smoking this one particular joint, or sleeping with this beautiful stranger, or accumulating [x] amount of money. But the truth is that any experience, no matter how intense, is temporary and will always leave us wanting something more.
The ways in which we go about seeking temporary pleasures reinforces the identification with the sense of “I” that spiritual masters tell us is the primary obstacle to bringing out our full potential.
The more you see that ‘just one more time’ won’t (and can’t) satisfy you, the more you see the ways in which selfish desires often harm yourselves and others, the more you can simply observe the impulsion to act in those ways without automatically reacting to it.
Pleasure and thrill seeking is the most obvious way in which we can get stuck, but other types of thoughts are even more powerful in inhibiting us from living out our potential. Repetitive thoughts of unworthiness, inadequacy, and fear can easily paralyze us and lead to acting in ways that won’t get us anywhere.
When a sculptor realizes he’s about to move in a way that won’t contribute to actualizing his vision, he’ll stop his chisel from slipping down into this groove and redirect it.
As hard as it would be for a sculptor to do this, it can feel immeasurably more difficult to recondition behavior and thought patterns that aren’t serving us.
I’m continually tempted to revert back into behavioral grooves that I’ve resolved to leave behind. It’s easy to talk about the possibility of cultivating a new internal narrative, but when it actually comes down to banishing the old voices, it can seem like a sisyphean effort. The inertia of the past is very strong and can take decades to break, which can sometimes lead to despair when I feel I’m not making progress at the pace I’d hoped to.
I wonder if Rodin ever faced a moment where he looked at a stone he had started to carve and thought, what the hell am I doing? Where am I going with this? Will I ever be able to bring out the image I have in my head?
When you know that the way you’ve been sculpting won’t lead anywhere but you can’t yet see the form waiting in the stone, it can be very difficult to maintain your commitment. Sometimes I question why I continue on the path instead of just keeping moving in the ways that are familiar and comfortable. The deeper I dig into myself, the more I realize not only how hard it is to ‘redirect the chisel’, but also how much work remains. Anger, lust, impatience, fear, and doubt are very rough edges that will take a lifetime (perhaps several) to smooth out. Even if I have a master sculptor at my side encouraging me to be patient, assuring me that transformation is indeed possible, the goal seems so distant and mysterious.
What sustains me in moments of despair is to remind myself that when I focus on how much more I have to go, I lose track of how much I’ve already done. Even if I haven’t managed to completely align my thoughts and actions with what I know to be true, I’ve benefited from incremental increases in equanimity, love, and happiness. I have to remind myself that the important thing is the direction I’m heading in; whether you’re bring out the potential in a stone or yourself, patience is key.
I ask myself if Rodin knew the form he was going to bring out, or if it revealed itself as he went along (the museum houses several examples of ‘studies’ where you can see the stages through which he went to arrive at the final sculpture). I also wonder if we can really know what we’re truly capable, or if that becomes apparent only when we start to chisel away.
Unlike a sculpture, the inner work will never be finished. As long as we are alive, there will always be more room for improvement, something that can be discouraging or energizing, depending on how you look at it.
How difficult it is to know that we could always be more of what we are! But how wonderful it is that we’re not set in stone!