Art-Making and Friendship

I listened to a talk today by a Buddhist meditation teacher, Gil
Fronsdal. He was talking about Spiritual Friendship and mentioned
Kalyana Mitta, which is a Pali phrase that refers to a spiritual
teacher. The phrase is translated as “good friend” or “beautiful
friend.” This seems quite profound to me.
Rather than a spiritual
teacher being separate from (and somehow above) our personal lives, that
person can be a genuine friend–and our friends can be our spiritual
teachers.

He also spoke about the many ways that Buddhist sutras (scriptures) quote the Buddha as talking about having good friends as a crucial part of the spiritual path. I understand these teachings as pointing to the reality that spiritual practice is extremely difficult at times, and that having a community of people around us that are also dedicated to practice can help us keep going, can help us see things that we might be ignorant of otherwise, and can help us by being models and mirrors for our own growth.

Gil spoke about monasteries and spiritual communities being places that are not necessarily peaceful and inspiring all the time, but rather are places where we can practice together, and help each other along. Sometimes that help is through conscious assistance, sometimes it is through conflict and disagreement within a conscious container of community. Always it is a vehicle for experimenting with relationships as part of our practice. And the commitment that all of these “friends” share to a path of truth-seeking, acts as a structure for these experiments, making spiritual community a powerful learning environment.

So much of Buddhist and other spiritual teachings focus on what we can do as individuals to work on ourselves–how to meditate, how to eat consciously, how to behave, how to work with thoughts and emotions. And while this is very useful for me, I am also a social being, and so having my friendship-life reframed within a context of spiritual practice, is very helpful for me

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We’ve had a big gap in funding for our Dandelion Dancetheater this year, which interrupted the steadily increasing artist fees we’ve been able to pay since 2002.  And while I don’t think any of us were spending hours in rehearsal exclusively for the modest fees we could pay, I know it did make a difference. It’s been very important to me to pay all the artists working with me and so this gap has been unsettling. It’s pushed me to reflect on why we do what we do. Creating and performing experimental art is grueling, and takes an immense amount of dedication.

In my ensembles, we often talk about how we ultimately do what we do as a labor of love. This is definitely true for me. I’ve never found anything that I love as much as traveling this path of creation, discovery and truth-sharing.

And there is also another huge piece of the puzzle for me. I do what I do–rehearsals, planning, grantwriting, performing, cleaning-up, emotional processing, and all of it–because of friendship. My closest and most consistent friends have for many years been the artists I work with.

For a long time I have judged myself about this, thinking that I’m supposed to have an extensive friend network outside of my work. I’m not quite sure where I developed this idea. I’ve assumed that a healthy social life can’t be based on something like a dance/theater company, especially if I’m the director. The relationships that I have with my company members have so many complex layers to them, that include power dynamics, economics, critical feedback, career issues, business management and more. And then many of my friendships with people who aren’t in my work but play a big part in my artistic growth, are complicated by competition, envy, comparison, etc. I figured that because of this, I’m supposed to have friends with whom I do no business at all and have no professional ties to.

But lately I’ve realized that all relationships, perhaps especially our closest ones, are very complicated and involve all sorts of conflicting desires. Every relationship has a context and things that each person wants from each other. No relationship is clear-cut. My relationships with my company members and collaborating artists give me great joy, growth and sustenance…Exactly what I want out of my friends. Here the Buddhist teachings on friendship are providing me with a potent new perspective.

If one of the most beautiful friendships can be between a spiritual teacher and student, then it seems to me that the same is true of the relationship between director and ensemble member. One of my grad school mentors told me to never direct my friends–to always have casts of performers that maintain a clear separation between social and professional dynamics. This didn’t sound so good to me. One of the main reasons I have continued so long in this field is because I can do it with my friends.

Later, one of my meditation teachers told me it would help my practice to meditate regularly with a “sangha” (community of practitioners.) When I told him that I didn’t have time to go to a meditation group because of my rehearsal schedule, he suggested that my company is my “sangha” and that I should meditate with them. I’ve done precisely that for the past 3 years and it has been wonderful–deepening our work together, deepening our intimacy, deepening my practice.

Money is a lightning rod for conflict, and since I want the performers I work with to be paid (and me too of course,) I’ve assumed that such a situation, infused with financial dynamics, could never produce “pure” friendships. Additionally, my close artist friends (who have their own companies, concerts, rehearsal schedules and such) are always in competition with me at some level for who will get certain grants, presentations, good reviews, popular support–which all is intrinsic to securing money that supports further work. How could I call these people my friends? Aren’t we always going to be working with confusing feelings in regards to each other’s artistic well-being?

But my closest friendship, the one with my husband and partner, is saturated with financial issues: bills, mortgage payments, house supplies, pet food, groceries–not to mention conflicts about shared time and space. And while it can be difficult to sort through these issues together, I see it is as a necessary part of our continually deepening relationship. Buying a house together–intensifying our financial relationship–has been one of the most relationship-strengthening moves we’ve made in the past 9 years. Committing to spending our lives together is powerful because of, not in spite of, the complicated financial and logistical issues we’ll face.

And over the past 19 years of working together with Kimiko Guthrie, the co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater, we’ve had to navigate incredibly difficult issues about resources, money, competition and the like. We’ve found a perspective that works very well for us. We acknowledge that both of us want money for our projects, fair use of the company’s name and resources, and fair ways of compensating the amount of work we do for the company. We don’t take it personally when one of us wants to figure out a system for dividing something up so that it reflects the particular effort each of us made. We even pay each other sometimes for particular tasks we need help with. None of this seems to taint our friendship at all. Rather, it is enveloped into a friendship that is so large it can contain almost anything, no matter how awkward or strange. We come back again and again to a belief that what’s important is that things feel good to both of us, not that we reflect some standard from outside about how a relationship is supposed to be. This can apply to the smallest and largest of trouble spots.

So, I am grateful for the wonderful friendships that I have with the Dandelion Dancetheater company members, with my fellow dance/theater artists, with artists in other fields, and even with presenters and producers. Each one is unique, and each one feeds me in a different, very important way.

I’m not closed off to friendships with people outside of my artistic path at all. I’m just acknowledging and celebrating the fact that most of my friendship life happens within the realm of art-making. I’m challenging my internal judgments about that fact, and inviting these friendships to blossom and thrive.

Yay Friends! Yay Art! Yay Art-Friends!

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