Impossible Standards and Why They Might Be Good For You
Meaning Making

Old Sai Loses a Horse (or a Taoist Fable for Artists)

I was recently reminded of a Taoist (pronounced Dow-ist) fable.  There was a farmer, Old Sai, who had a horse to help him plow the fields, but one day the horse ran away.  All the village came to console the farmer on his loss, and the farmer said, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"

A few days later the horse returned, bringing with him several wild horses.  Everyone in the village gathered around the farmer and congratulated him on his good fortune.  But the farmer said, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"

The farmer's son decided to train one of the new horses, but was thrown to the ground, breaking his leg.  Again the villagers came to console the farmer, who only shrugged and said, "Good luck, bad luck, who is to know."  War broke out, and all the able-bodied men and boys went off to fight.  All were killed in battle except the farmer's only son, who had remained behind because of his broken leg.  When the villagers came to sadly congratulate the farmer he again merely nodded, and said, "Good luck, bad luck, who is to know."

This story is often used by business motivation experts, but it resonates with me because it describes my studio experiences. At any given hour my painting will have a "good luck" or "bad luck" point of view. Take, for example, my internal conversations that go something like this: "Brilliant block-in," followed a few hours later with "I can't believe you didn't see that design flaw."    Believe me, it's a big relief to realize that over two thousand years ago, Taoist teachers were trying to get their pupils to understand the same thing -  Yin Yang is everywhere.

The real difficulty in the Yin Yang aspect for me is that the more I learn, the more likely I am to identify with the villagers rather than the wise Old Sai.  I notice when I've done what seems like a poor job.  And because I notice, I want to fix it - which is just as likely to lead to more noticing of those bits and blobs that the fix has now thrown into obvious relief. 

It's really quite frustrating.

But not hopeless. With hard work, teeth-grinding patience, and a friendly nudge from the Taoist teachers, it is possible to wait a few hours (no, oil paint won't dry) to decide if that oops isn't really a stroke of genius in disguise.  Things are not always what they first appear to be - and in our fast-paced, highly competitive, being-in-the-moment artistic lifestyles, it's probably all right if you stop a few moments and just breathe. 



For what it's worth, it is possible to adhere to high standards and take a patient approach.  Chef Keith Floyd says this about cooking - which also applies to artists trying to follow the Taoist way:

"Cooking is an art and patience a virtue.. Careful shopping, fresh
ingredients and an unhurried approach are nearly all you need.
There is one more thing.. love. Love for food and love for
those you invite to your table. With a combination of these
things you can be an artist." ( from Art Quotes )