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Lions Roar : September 2019
around him, paper and crayons in hand, all raptly engaged. “Start with the head,” he said, and he sketched out the shape of a huge dragon head in black marker. He then took them through each feature of that face, filling in the details—an elongated snout, fierce eyes and flared nostrils, a burst of flames extending from its wide- open, fanged mouth. The kids were having a great time, but I could see that he had a problem. He had used up his canvas by filling it with just one part of the beast. There was nowhere else to go. My first instinct was to jump in and rescue him, to get him to do it right from the beginning—and I almost did. “Look, you start over with another piece of paper,” I wanted to tell him. “You sketch out the key shapes—notice the relationships between them and also the space you’ve got available on the page, and then fill in the details afterward. That way you won’t go outside the boundaries of the paper.” I’d taken enough basic-level art classes to know what you’re supposed to do. I knew the procedure. I knew how to do it right. I took a deep breath, and I didn’t say anything. I told myself that this is his moment, not mine. The truth is, he’s get- ting older, and I need to step back more and let him figure things out by himself. I need to let him make mistakes and solve his own problems. For him, though, there was no big problem to solve. He looked at his draw- ings for a minute—the small complete sketch and the large partial one. Then he turned to one of the program lead- ers, asked for more paper and tape, and began to expand the canvas. He used another sheet of paper for the body and forelegs, and put ample wings, back legs, and a long, spikey tail on three more. The overall effect was a kind of patch- work dragon extending out at unexpected angles. It became a dragon without boundaries, a dragon that could not be contained within a single canvas. It was fierce, powerful, imperfect, beautiful. The kids around him followed suit with smaller pieces of paper and tape. No one saw a mistake—it was just a way to draw a dragon. When my son’s time was up, he told everyone, “You can keep adding stuff— people or trees or buildings or whatever. Just tape on more paper. It can go on forever.” When he waved to his friends and met me at the door with a proud grin, I heard it—that little bell that goes off in my mind sometimes. Oh, a dragon. Hadn’t I noticed? Wasn’t I paying attention? All along, those fierce eyes remained right there, staring me in the face. I’m a parent and a writer and a teacher and a Zen practitioner. Maybe because of all that, I’m a big believer in practice: you go through a process, you follow the steps. You show up and do it again and again. Making mistakes and failing is part of this—an essential part. I say this stuff all the time, wearing my various hats. I say it to others and to myself, over and over again. But it’s easy to forget that alongside all of this is seeing a thing through to the end, to encountering each instance of practice as the real thing, not “just practice.” Because whatever you’re doing, that is the real thing. That means engag- ing wholeheartedly, even if it’s not quite going as planned. My son found a way to do that. Over the years, I’ve seen him give up on various endeavors—something he’s drawing or writing, a science project or a puzzle, his math homework. I’ve done the same thing. Many, many times. Maybe the task is too hard, or I’m not very good at whatever it is I’m trying to do, and I just walk away. We talk about this sometimes. We both struggle with it. What happens, though, when you embrace your mistake? When you see something through to the end, even if you started out wrong from the very beginning? My son reminded me: one way or another, you capture the dragon. You do it every time. ♦ NUNS IN THE HIMALAYAS The Pema Chödrön Foundation’s support helps ensure that nuns in Nepal, Bhutan and India have the same equal opportunities for deep practice and study as monks have always had. AT rISk popULATIoNS Pema is committed to supporting organizations that work to protect and nurture at-risk populations, particularly women and youth who are in challenging circumstances. THE Book INITIATIVE Pema’s books and recorded teachings are offered to underserved individuals and the organizations that support them, around the world, free of charge. THE BUDDHIST MoNASTIC TrADITIoN Pema is dedicated to help guide and support her home monastery, Gampo Abbey, as well as monastic settings in Asia and the West. OUR ONLINE BOOKSTORE: You can purchase Pema’s books, CDs and DVDs along with her archived teachings at our online bookstore. Free Shipping in the USA. THE pEMA CHöDröN FoUNDATIoN SUpporTS: pEMACHoDroNFoUNDATIoN.org LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2019 18 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE