It’s a paradox that when we detach ourselves from thoughts of ourselves and how we’re coming across and do with concentration solely what’s necessary to do to create good art, many obstacles disappear and no longer trouble us. Then the work we do is infinitely better and the artist’s life we lead is infinitely happier. We just do our work as well as we can and live our life as well as we can because that’s how work should be done and an artist’s life should be lived.
“Victory goes to the one who has no thought of himself.” (Chozan Shissai, The Way of the Sword)
Archers and Artists
Two thousand years ago Chuang Tzu wrote a description of a situation so relevant to painters, writers, dancers, and other artists of today that he could have written it this morning. He wrote that when an archer is shooting and no external prize is at stake he possesses all his skill. The moment a prize is riding on the shot, even a brass buckle, the archer becomes nervous and loses confidence. If the prize is more valuable, as a quantity of gold, “he shoots as if he were blind.”
Describe that situation to archers today and they will tell you what they tell me: “That’s exactly what happens.”
The archer’s skill hasn’t changed, but the importance the archer has attached to the prize has made him care too much. Because he is thinking more about winning the prize than simply shooting the arrow he becomes anxious and his performance suffers.
When realizing that a critic, an editor, an agent, a reviewer, a gallery owner, a potential buyer, an audience will soon be evaluating the work, for most artists, even the best and most highly regarded, the self-conscious uneasiness begins.
Crippling self-doubt and fear of not succeeding and falling in someone’s estimation are not only the archer’s, but the artist’s, major internal obstacles, haunting many artists, writers, composers, and performers, replacing self-confidence with discouragement at the first hint of possible failure, and making many magnificently talented people give up and quit their art rather than endure them.
So the question is: How can artists keep from going blind?
What is Non-Attachment?
On the one hand, making a painting or story should be its own reward. The artist should be happy just because of the fulfillment inherent in the artistic work itself. He shouldn’t care whether the work will be liked by others, or whether he will receive public recognition and possibly wealth. But he does care, and the conflicting motivations of art for its own sake on the one hand and art for profit or other external signs of success on the other put the artist in a quandary, particularly if to achieve success he is asked to make compromises and do things he does not want to do. Is there a way to solve this quandary?
To non-attach means to be totally engrossed, completely absorbed in the fulfillment of the task before you, whatever it is, and the full realization of your art and your potential, giving everything to them and nothing but them, forgetting everything else. Bullfighter Juan Belmonte, the greatest torero of his era, an artist of the bullring, wrote, “I forget the public, the bullfighters, myself, even the bull.” Japanese samurai, the most action-oriented and decisive people ever to live, were advised that to be effective in action they must “forget life in the face of an opponent, forget death, forget the enemy, forget yourself.” Free yourself from any preoccupation with yourself—your fame, your wealth– and you’ll overcome impediments to your best work because your focus will be on the work 100%, nothing left over for anything else. All your attention will be brought to bear on the one thing to be written, painted, composed, or performed.
The non-attached artist is the most conscientious of people. All actions are equally important to him or her. Non-attachment doesn’t mean to be indifferent to the results of your efforts, or not to be ambitious. Be active, be industrious, like a sculptor, make chips, be ambitious, accomplish goals, emphasize actions, get things done.
If fame or fortune, success, honors, and achievement come your way, that’s fine, that’s wonderful, that’s something to be happy about. But the mistake we make is getting caught up in them, hungering for them, clinging to them, needing them desperately and, measuring our self-worth against our ability to achieve them. If we make that mistake and don’t achieve them, we’ll feel we’re failures. Just put your mind, your spirit, your energy–your whole being–into the action at hand, the person at hand, the life at hand, the writing or painting or dancing at hand, and forget everything else.
The Woodworker and “Outward Considerations”
“Your highness,” said the woodworker, “there is no secret. It’s all very simple. When I set out to make a chair I enter the forest and look for the right tree, the tree that is waiting there to become my chair. I cut it down and set to work. I clear my mind of everything else. I become oblivious to any reward to be gained or fame I might acquire. When I’m free from such outward considerations I just do exactly what I have to do, using all my skill.”
When you free yourself from everything else, and again and again bring your concentration back to what you have yet to do, you’re at your best. The woodworker produced masterpieces, but didn’t worry about producing a masterpiece. The highest performers in field after field—business and industry and the arts–are motivated by the work itself—to do the best job possible–and not by external rewards. Even though they are more successful and receive those rewards more than other people, they aren’t driven by them.
When you work best you accept yourself with no strings attached. Finally, at last, you don’t have to prove yourself. You just do whatever is there for you to do. If you’re a woodworker you absorb yourself in creating the finest chair you can, never stopping to think of what glories will be yours when you produce a masterpiece. If you’re a baseball player you don’t worry about how cheered you’ll be if you get a hit, or what a goat you’ll be if you don’t. You just step up to the plate, keep your eye on the ball, and when it gets close you swing the bat. If you step to the podium and worry about what the audience is thinking of you, you won’t be totally focused on what you have to say, and you’ll fumble and stumble. But if you just concentrate on the words you’re speaking and speak with sincerity, you should do well.
Philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, a Nobel Prize winner, wrote, “I was not born happy….In adolescence, I hated my life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more about mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. Very largely it is due to diminishing the preoccupation with myself.”
The Process of Brushing Off
One person may be 25% taller than another or 25% more intelligent. We think that’s pretty significant. Yet some people are 50 or 100 times more creative than others. Creative artists are the best workers in the world. They are models of human motivation and productivity. They will work alone long hours for years, without feedback, without recognition, without praise, overcoming hardships and setbacks without flinching, always returning with high energy to the work which life has equipped them with a talent for, often producing a vast output. Yet they often meet hostility from critics of all sorts unparalleled in other fields.
English writer Rudyard Kipling would go on to establish himself as a master stylist with a staggering ability with words and to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. But early in his career a publisher wrote him: “I’m sorry, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Vladimir Nabokov, also a dazzling stylist, received this message from a publisher in response to Lolita: “I recommend that you bury this under a stone for a thousand years.” Many successful writers, artists, and actors, like painter Jackson Pollock, who revolutionized painting, have been told, “You haven’t an ounce of talent.”
When you non-attach you brush off such attacks, insults, and unfair criticisms because you’re not seeking anyone’s approval. If there is one thing famous artists will tell you it is that you work best and are most powerfully motivated to create and will surmount even major obstacles when you’re not thinking of anyone’s liking but your own.
Such a confident attitude gives you courage. In response to so many heartless rejection letters from editors, novelist Henry Miller, who was not one to suffer fools, said, “Who are these shits? Where do they get off telling me these things?” It is often the artist who’s not seeking approval who receives it.
Not So Eccentric After All
Many creative people are considered eccentric when they aren’t eccentric at all. They just non-attach and are less at the mercy of people’s opinions. They genuinely don’t give a hoot what others think. Independence is a cornerstone of the creator’s personality.
Composer Igor Stravinsky was doted on by people who knew of his greatness. But he enjoyed himself more when in the company of people who’d never heard of him. Maurice Ravel, possibly the greatest piano composer of the twentieth century, was always averse to writing and talking about himself. When complimented for his creative ideas, Thomas Edison, as creative a human being as ever lived, declined credit. He said that ideas were “in the air,” and that if he hadn’t discovered them someone else would have. Of the handful of Emily Dickinson’s poems published in her lifetime, not one bore her name.
Practice letting go of any preoccupation with yourself. Nudge your attention away from yourself and back to the work at hand and the actions the art calls on you to perform, and you will excel. Just render the drawing; just write the novel, just perform the dance, just market your work.
- Whatever task you’re performing say to yourself, “This one thing I’m going to do as well as I’m able. I am not concerned with myself. I am indifferent to everything but the quality of my work.”
- Refuse to frighten yourself with anxious thoughts of all that’s riding on your success, of the honors that may be yours if you succeed, or of the horrors if you fail. Just bring your focus back to the objective at hand and watch obstacles dissolve. If wealth, fame, or accolades come your way, they will without your worrying about them.
- Be bold in the face of harsh criticism. If you believe you’re right, stand your ground. Be unruffled under fire—cool and calm, unintimidated. Never let undeserved criticism weaken your confidence. They are wrong; you are right! We remember Rembrandt and Michelangelo; no one remembers their critics. You must never lose unshakeable confidence that you have the ability to produce quality art and will succeed sooner or later.
- Always try to improve, but never dwell on your imperfections.
- Place your emphasis on developing your skills to the highest possible level above everything else. The higher your skills, the higher the goals you’ll achieve and the more clearly you’ll express yourself, your vision, your voice.
- Do what your life calls on you to do for its own sake. Engross yourself in it–big job or small job, important or unimportant, praiseworthy or not, paid or unpaid. Give freely of your talent without expecting anything in return.
Artist Alexander Calder was asked why sculptors like to produce large works. He answered, “It’s more exhilarating…and then one can think he’s a big shot.” Rare are the people who can live five days without getting caught up in themselves–or five minutes. Ninety percent of what we talk about is ourselves and 95% of what we think about is ourselves. Our preoccupation with ourselves creates many of our miseries.
But when we become non-attached and focus on our work and the steady development of our talents to the exclusion of every other concern, we stop worrying about being big shots and talking and thinking so much about ourselves.
Then our work leaps up and becomes exceptional.
© 2015 David J. Rogers
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