Hamster Wheels and Buddhist Nuns

I often write, or share on social media, about how another artist’s work or practice inspires me. Sometimes, though, inspiration comes from unexpected places.

A few weeks ago I was slapped with an a-ha! moment while watching a food documentary series. I love escapist visual media (ooh, Netflix, you are the perfect accomplice to my obsessive binge watching tendencies). Even when I’m watching so-called empty calorie TV I’m tuned in to catch sparks that might set flame to an epiphany.

Let me set the stage, or shall I say table, for you…

For the past several months I’ve been struggling as I watch artist friends reach milestones in their careers. I’m genuinely thrilled for them – a win for a friend is a win for me, too. But as I see many of them moving their practices forward mine feels stagnant, frozen in stasis.

I’ve been in this art game a long time. I do the research. I do the work. I prep my applications with care. Why haven’t I been able to capture the kind of successes that my peers are starting to get?

Firstly, I realize there is no guarantee, nor correlation, between how hard you work and how successful you are. The reasons for not being chosen are multiple and mostly out of one’s control. Being aware of this lessens the sting but doesn’t prevent the hollow, spinning cycle of discouragement. Getting stuck on the “why not me?” hamster wheel started to affect my confidence and my drive. I became wholly uninspired about going into the studio.

After a particularly disheartening week I tuned in to watch season 3, episode 1 of Chef’s Table, a foodie documentary series produced by Netflix that highlights the culinary and philosophical journey of a single chef over the course of an hour.

This particular episode focused on Jeong Kwan, a Buddhist nun who cooks in a mountain monastery – not a professionally trained chef in the traditional sense – but nevertheless respected by celebrated food heavies around the world.

I was in a dire frame of mind and ripe for some monk wisdom. I was not disappointed. At one point Kwan speaks about creativity. I’m paraphrasing, though I feel her words branded themselves onto my soul:

“Creativity and ego cannot coexist. If you can free yourself from the comparing mind and the jealous mind then your creativity can truly shine.”

[insert epiphany]

It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Suddenly my studio resistance made sense. Of course my beloved Creativity didn’t want to show up – those bastard Mind twins, Jealous and Comparing, were bouncing off the walls getting drunk with their buddy, Ego, and talking loudly over each other. Creativity doesn’t like that scene. She likes a nice, private room with music in the background.

I know that jealousy is a self-sabotaging little bitch. I know that the comparison game is a wicked, slippery slope. I’ve lost my footing and slid down that spiral countless times. And yet I still need gentle and consistent reminders that someone else’s path is NOT MY PATH.

The best strategy I’ve found to work through the discouragement is to pick up my deflated creativity, carry it to the studio, wrap it lovingly in my work smock, set some materials in front of it and give it a gentle nudge. Sometimes, though, it needs to be more firmly pushed.

Here are five strategies that I’ve used in the past to help me release Ego’s grip (when I’ve remembered to use them) and focus my energy back into my work.

If you’re the type of personality who gets hijacked by Ego and the Mind Twins – those bastards – well, maybe these can help you, too.

  1. Ask yourself, “Would I have truly wanted that particular (award, acceptance, opportunity, etc) and the expectations/obligations that come with it?” (Not in a “sour grapes” way, but in a sincerely inquisitive way. Would you be happy with the kind of practice that so-and-so has? Surprisingly, the answer is not always “yes”.)
  2. Remember that you are in good company. As this article by Bud Bilanich points out, plenty of folks had to slog through the Rejection Swamp before they “made it” in their chosen vocation.
  3. Remind yourself WHY you make art (check out my manifesto if you’re curious about my motivation).
  4. Watch a biographical documentary, especially one where someone fails time and again, yet persists despite this and eventually achieves success. I recommend: Comedian (Jerry Seinfeld building up a full length comedy show’s worth of material from scratch) and, of course, Chef’s Table (many episodes feature chefs who struggled mightily early on in their careers). Additionally, Blogger Debra Eve has a fine list of inspirational movies on her website, Later Bloomer.
  5. Read (re-read) Malcolm Gladwell’s Late Bloomers article, found in the October 20, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

I’m happy to say that I’m feeling creatively back on track and excited about what’s happening in the studio. Monk wisdom FTW! But…life is a constant roller coaster and it’s likely that I’ll need to be reminded of my own strategies in another few months 😉

I wonder what form inspiration will come in then? I do know that it can be found anywhere if you’re open to receiving it.

Do you have a favorite strategy for motivating yourself when you feel discouraged? Please share in the comments.

2 Responses to “Hamster Wheels and Buddhist Nuns”

  1. Joy says:

    I *love* Chef’s Table, and I watch it for inspiration as well. I like that we share that in common.

    I can very much relate to what you’ve written about here. I also recognize that I ‘paused’ my online career in the past two years to advocate for, and support, my daughter during a particularly challenging time for her, so it’s understandable that my peers are getting awards and experiencing opportunities that I am currently not. But, my mind doesn’t always go to that understanding, as feelings arise.

    I love this *I realize there is no guarantee, nor correlation, between how hard you work and how successful you are. The reasons for not being chosen are multiple and mostly out of one’s control.*; it’s a great reminder.

    When I feel discouraged, I like to go to my journal and just stream it all out in writing. And, do my best not to judge myself for my feelings. For inspiration, I like to unplug and spend time in nature. And, I also like to engage with other creative expressions that are different from the field I’m in (so, I might go to a concert or an art gallery or slam poetry reading), to remind myself of the myriad forms of creating, and the passion and love and joy in it all, when shared from the heart.

    • Thanks for reading and for sharing your connection to the post, Joy. It can be so hard to remember to not judge our feelings when we’re in the heat of it – thank you for that reminder! Engaging with other creative expressions is a great tactic for finding inspiration.