By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 9, 2009
Last Wednesday I wrote a post called “Self-Doubt.” It shared a rough patch I was going through on the book I’m working on now. I put it out there because I wanted other writers and artists (who know this already but perhaps needed a little reminder, as I do) to remember that they aren’t alone when they themselves struggle with this demon. People wrote in. I want to say thanks to all of them, to those friends and trench-mates who said thanks and who offered me encouragement. I appreciate it. It meant a lot to me.
Where am I this week? Still wrestling with that same alligator–but with my head, at least, out of its jaws. Thanks, you guys!
The episode got me thinking, though, about a writer or artist or entrepreneur’s real motivation. Why are we in this game? What’s the bottom line, beyond money or success or a pat on the back at the end of the year?
The hierarchical orientation
To me, there are two levels on which our artistic aspirations operate. The first is what I would call the hierarchical. That’s the competitive level, the plane of ambition. It’s the dimension of ego and of recognition seeking. On that sphere, we aim for success. We want to achieve something, and we want to be acknowledged for it.
In the hierarchical orientation, we’re attached to outcomes. We feel hope. We experience fear. On this plane, terms like “failure” and “success” have meaning.
“Sit without hope”
I used to have a meditation teacher whose unvarying admonishment to us, his students, was, “Sit without hope” and “Sit without fear.”
He wanted us to just sit. Just breathe. Just be. The lesson was to “just live.”
I always admired that. I couldn’t achieve it very often, but when I did, I knew it was a true place.
The territorial orientation
Which brings us to the second level on which our endeavors as writers, artists and entrepreneurs operate–the territorial level. Territorial is different from hierarchical. A territory is our home turf. If we were hawks or wolves, it would be our hunting ground. If we were Stevie Wonder, it would be the piano, the music studio. As writers, our territory is the page; as painters, it’s the canvas.
When I was getting my butt kicked by self-doubt last week, I had strayed off the territorial path. That was my mistake. I’ve made that same mistake fifty times before. I keep forgetting the lesson–and keep having to learn it again.
I was not sitting without hope. I was not sitting without fear. I hoped my stuff would succeed. I hoped it wouldn’t fail. I was attached to both outcomes.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, “We have the right to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor.”
A spiritual practice
Krishna was talking about a spiritual practice. Our labor, the Lord of Discipline meant, must be offered freely for its own sake–not for hope of gain. That’s hard to do. For me, it’s a lesson I have to keep learning over and over.
In the end, our work must be a practice. We enter our office or studio each morning the way a martial artist enters his dojo or a monk his temple. We pause on the threshold and, in imagination at least, take our shoes off. We wash our hands. We purify our minds. We bow to whatever guardian spirit or muse we imagine inhabits this sacred space.
We will be our best selves for this goddess. We’ll come before her in humility, asking nothing, but prepared to give her our all. While we abide in this space, we will regard our practice as holy. Asking nothing, we receive everything. But what is everything? We can’t count it or measure it. We can’t take it to the bank. No one can feel it but us.
That’s what we’re here for as artists and acolytes and students of the mystery. That’s what I had misplaced last week. It’s what I’m trying to find (and hang onto) this week. I’m trying to sit without hope. I’m trying to sit without fear.