Upon a recommendation by a friend I’ve been reading “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, the author of the “The Legend of Bagger Vance and numerous other titles. It’s subtitled “Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles”. The book is separated into three sections, the first being all about the enemy of creativity, Resistance, which I’ll be focusing on. The second part is about what a true Professional is and the last section is a look at Inspiration, the muse and the spirituality of the creative person. There is some good material there, but what really made me thinking (largely because I disagree) is the first section.
In the section of resistance, there’s an emphasis on “just do it” – resistance is the enemy. It’s a war. Resistance is insidious. Invisible. It’s fueled by fear. It recruits allies. It’s akin to a state of victimhood. It never sleeps. It leads to self-medication. Rationalization is resistance. Often looking for ‘healing’ is resistance.
There are some good points in there, but I have a fundamental disagreement with any attitude that places a part of ourselves as the enemy. The need to create enemies is seemingly a great part of our culture. It’s part of how we were raised. “Just get out there and succeed! Don’t be a loser! Keep pushing!” The part of us that wants to rest and regroup turns into an enemy. The part of us that feels anger and says no to what we “should” do turns into something negative, often labeled “resistance”.
What’s Wrong with Resistance, Anyway?
These attitudes are so common place that we don’t question them, and so don’t question them when it happens inside ourselves. It turns into how we self-relate. We lose self-compassion, patience, and understanding. We want to force everything, and then divorce ourselves from our body because we don’t want to feel the consequences of not listening to “resistance”. We think that it’s just not worth listening to anything that we think is resisting.
An example in my memory is from years ago, when I took a course in song writing. I’d already learned much music theory but kept encountering blocks when trying to write a song. (I still do, even though in high school I wrote a fully orchestrated piece for the concert band). In the course, almost all of the instruction was not about music; it was a coaching of “Just do it! Write!” There was a constant a pressure to just write something, no matter how true it was or where it came from. It didn’t matter what price you paid. The problem was, I was already applying too much pressure to myself. I knew all about pressure. Forcing something can be great in the short term, but over the long term it creates rebellions. This is true in nations, in groups, and in the body and mind. And my mind rebelled. A stress response came up big time. I knew that if I continued to force myself, I would lose any love I have for song writing just to say that I wrote this song.
Of course, there was something in the resistance. It was a piece of me saying “no, if you do it, do it from the right place”. It was inviting me to connect with the passion of wanting to create, rather than pushing myself because I should create. That, to me, is the difference between great creativity and mediocrity. If you’re doing something because you should, it won’t have your soul behind it.
I probably had a bit bigger response than most people would in that class, but I see this as universal. Making an enemy, especially something internal like “resistance” creates a war. War creates violence. Violence leads to shell shock and disconnection from our essential gifts of being fully human. Disconnecting from our humanity (in itself the essence of trauma if taken too far) kills creativity.
Learning to Laugh
Now I’m totally for feeling the fear and doing it anyway, but to me that’s more about laughing with the fear. If you can’t laugh, you’re disconnected. And to me, the only enemy is disconnection. The opposite of disconnection is wholeness. Welcoming everything that’s inside you, even contrary, crazy ideas. When you’re whole, there’s no enemy in yourself, because everything is part of the whole. You don’t get whole by attacking a part of yourself, even if it’s an emotion or thought that feels bad. That’s how you disconnect. Learning to laugh about fear is about feeling the tingle that says “wow, this feels alive and out of control in a good way”.
I often go to the Vancouver Shambhala center, and there they talk a lot about Chogyam Trungpa’s idea of “basic goodness”. Essentially the idea is that every last part of us is unconditionally good. In reality, there’s no healing to do. Whatever is going on – fear, resistance, anger, all these “negatives”- is actually a part of that basic goodness. That’s the foundation behind being present and listening to the present moment. And creativity is fundamentally about listening to a deep-seated whisper and being free enough to let the body and mind be moved by that. When there’s the guns blazing of an internal war against resistance, that whisper is impossible to hear.
When I meditate alone, even after years of meditation and months of retreat, I still get huge impulses to distract myself. Without the presence of others in the room, there’s less restraint in following the desires that arise. I can reach for my cell phone, start a chore or just want to move because I’m feeling discomfort inside. I used to think this was bad, that the ideal was to stay rock-solid, to at least look like I’m a good meditator, even if I’m far from Buddha-like inside. But that’s again making an enemy of these impulses. There’s something beautiful in that discomfort. I find letting myself act on it at times makes it visible, lets me feel what’s really there. When I let my body show all these avoidant impulses, maybe even get up for a bit, then come back, I can meet them more consciously and see them more clearly. If I were to stiffen my body and mind simply to be able to stay still for an hour, I would lose connection. Why meditate if it isn’t to become more whole?
In that discomfort, I usually find shame. Gabor Mate recently said in a talk after the play “Medicine” that shame isn’t at all about shameful thoughts, but rather a primal state of brain chemistry that originates in disconnection. If a mother drops eye contact with her 9 month old child suddenly, the child will slump in a state of shame and create associations if it’s a pattern. Disconnection is a brother of shame. But it’s by allowing some of it, without getting lost in it, that reconnection can occur, that we can discover what was disconnected, and that it is “basically good”. So I allow resistance and listen to it. I allow myself times to run away, to procrastinate for a little while before I come back. Because if I hold a whip over myself, treating myself like a bad mule, meditation and creativity ends up being a war.
It’s unfortunate that we live in a society with so much pressure. It’s tempting to think that we just need to this last thing done. We just need to write, or act, or do something that’s “good for us”. The problem is in always living in short term, all-or-nothing thinking. There will be times of crisis or need that we push through something to get it done. But the key is to minimize that, to learn to live most of our lives from another place. If we focus instead on the bigger, long term picture, then there are different priorities. We focus not on results, but dynamics, making relationships (including to the self) better. We choose actions that develop peace and creativity, not actions that fake that we’re already there. We realize that the ends don’t justify the means – the ends are the means. We can’t reach peace and wholeness by any sort of violence, and we can’t be creative by putting ourselves in a small prison inside our mind.
Fear is not an enemy. Resistance is not an enemy. Distractions are not an enemy. Discursive thoughts are not an enemy. The only enemy is disconnection. There’s always something to connect to. Connect with resistance and see what’s really there. I guarantee when it’s truly seen it won’t be called resistance anymore.