Right Effort/Make Yourself Proud
Right Effort/Make Yourself Proud.
Last night, I listened to a dharma talk on wise effort. In it, the teacher described a pattern that she has often observed in her meditation students; a way of swinging back and forth between an extreme kind of heroic effort, followed by a collapse, and a time of sloth and not trying. She commented that the two sides of the cycle are connected; that the memory of the slothful times, and the fear of returning to them, fuels the exaggerated striving, which, unfortunately, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, once the student exhausts themselves with their over-reaching, and, again, collapses.
Such a sad story, which I immediately recognized in myself. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend a few nights ago: She asked me what I’ve been up to, and I described a series of projects: personal healing work, art projects, writing projects, a retreat I’d held, on top of my usual massage work, and not to mention the fact that I was freshly recovering from a breakup. She commented that it sounded like I was doing a lot of things! And I responded with my usual, “I guess so, but I really want to be getting a lot more done.”
My friend looked very puzzled, and, in her skilled way as a student of social work, she asked me thoughtfully phrased questions that unlocked understandings in me that I’d never quite connected before. I wish I could reproduce the line of questioning for you, but all I remember clearly is the insight that they led me to:
The nagging feeling that I am never doing enough is fueled by the fear that I will never break free from the limitations of what I believe is possible, and get to where I really want to go. I absorbed these limitations from the world around me; from my parents, from my teachers, from the media. No amount of getting stuff done relieves me of the fear that I am not going to make it.
Basically, there is a part of me that is aware that what I am trying to do is revolutionary, and there are internal and external forces working against me. If I am going to succeed, it is going to mean winning some kind of a war against the internalized messages of my culture and family, and that is no casual project.
A mental image comes to me, of someone who needs to jump over a deep, wide chasm. She takes several steps back, so that she can get a running start and fling herself over the edge.
I am cyclically working myself up into a lather of wild-eyed, bared-toothed momentum, so that I can make a terrifying leap, and when I reach the other side of the chasm, I collapse, and rest.
But I don’t typically understand why I am resting. I chastise myself; “Just when I was getting going! I really am useless. I’ll never get anywhere.” So unkind! Not enough understanding.
The path of the creative is not an easy one, and it involves swimming upstream. It takes courageous effort, on a regular basis, to keep on swimming. I am terrified of giving up. Every day, I either step up to the plate and create, or I chicken out and watch youtube videos. Regardless of which path I choose, the next day I wake up and face the choice again. There is no guarantee that I will keep stepping up, or that I will do it often enough to get anywhere. This is why I’m a nervous wreck. This is why I say, “Yeah, I guess so, but I want to be creating a lot more.”
Unfortunately, I suspect that it also contributes to my trouble with peacefully, prolifically, sustainably creating. Is there some point at which a person has “gotten there”? Where she can relax, and trust that she has made it, and that she can believe that she will keep on creating, and people will keep on paying, and she is actually a real-live professional artist who isn’t about to collapse? Maybe. But I suspect it’s more about getting past an internal obstacle than reaching an external goal. I suspect it’s about trust.
A deeper level of my recent insight is that I am specifically terrified of never breaking through the “sound barrier” where my father, a frustrated artist, got stuck. That is; making any significant amount of money from my creative projects. You see, my father was a talented painter, and he loved creating art: it was one of his most valued activities, but he could only do it “after work”. I watched him carefully while he painted. And I know that there is a part of him that would have liked to have made his living that way. But, for various reasons; depression, agoraphobia, hatred of capitalism; he never did.
It took me many years to even realize that I had a secret, forbidden desire to go beyond my father’s stopping point, and to realize that, lodged in my psyche, there is a taboo against doing so, a taboo against even thinking of doing so. What would it say to my father, if I were to go sailing past that place that he had gotten permanently stuck? How rude and thoughtless could I possibly be? What could make him feel like more of a failure, than to see his young daughter surpassing him? Of course, this is not a healthy attitude for a parent to take toward their child, but unfortunately, it happens. My father is no longer around to have an opinion either way, but apparently, that doesn’t stop me from worrying about offending him.
Also, I have never seen it modeled to go past that place. It seems like a wildly dangerous, unknown abyss. I don’t know the first step to take. All I’ve known, all I’ve seen, is to walk right up to the edge of it, kick at the tires, grumble, and then turn around, sit down, and complain about how impossible it is, and how gross money is, and how the world doesn’t understand me, and not get up again for a very long time.
Many of us will face this in some form in our lives: If we are brave and lucky and privileged enough to search and discover the current deep inside that tells us where to go; it may lead us right up to the edge of what we know: it may lead us right up to the place where our parents and role models stopped. And what would it mean, what would it take, to step over that edge?
It is a revolutionary act. It a brazen, selfish act. It could be the defining moment of our lives: The time when we claim our lives for ourselves; regardless of how our parents, or anyone else, might feel about it. It involves daring to put ourselves, our dreams, our goals, first. It involves an audacious level of belief in our own worthiness. It involves daring to believe that we deserve to be truly happy; and if that makes us more successful than our parents, guides, and friends, then so be it.
If we are lucky, they will learn to be proud.
But we don’t get to choose that. We get to choose to make ourselves proud.
So, how does it work? What is the balanced, calm, way of crossing the sound barrier? Is that even possible, or does it inherently involve a frenzy? I do not know.
The main thing that I know is to follow this program:
-Surround myself with as many supportive people as possible, and tell them the truth about what is happening inside me; avoid spending time with people who influence me to doubt myself.
-Set the intention to create, at least a little, on a daily basis, to keep that creative channel opening (wider and wider).
-Take care of my mind and body.
-Face the fear of loneliness that stands guard at the door to long patches of uninterrupted time, when I can get to know myself more intimately, and find out what I’m about, and put it down on paper, or into song, or onto the screen.
-Cultivate immense amounts of love and compassion toward myself in this difficult and exhilarating process.
-Listen to pretty much everything that Julia Cameron has to say.
I do have faith that if I keep on creating, one day at a time, it will keep on leading me forward. Blessings to everyone who is walking this path. May we find ourselves in a place of faith and joyful creation. ❤