By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 7, 2010
Over the past couple of weeks we’ve talked about Shame and Habit as allies in the struggle against Resistance. Shame motivates us to face our fears, and habit helps keep us in the groove once we’ve gotten started. Momentum is another powerful ally, along with ritual, love, enthusiasm, aspiration, patience, selflessness and greed (the good kind.) Put ’em all together and we can really get some mojo going. We can be working hard, having fun, contributing to the planet and actually getting somewhere.
Which brings us to what, to me, is the highest plane of creative endeavor–doing it as a practice.
What is a practice? A practice is a regular, daily application of intention. We might have a yoga practice, or a martial arts practice; we could have a practice in calligraphy or tai chi, or flower arrangement or Japanese swordfighting. Have you read The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura? The brewing and serving of tea can be a profound practice.
A practice isn’t pursued for money. It’s not an ego trip. Humility is a prime virtue in entering upon a practice. But a practice is not for cream puffs. A practice requires fierce intention and the relentless commitment of a warrior. A practice needs killer instinct.
A practice is spiritual. Its technique is to use a simple physical act or skill as an avenue to access the higher aspects of the self. In Hatha yoga, the various poses are meant to take us beyond our bodies, into our breath and ultimately into a state of consciousness where we’re present in our flesh but are, at the same time, looking on from a higher, more detached plane. That’s the payoff (beyond easing our aching backs).
Practices take place within a sacred space. When we enter our martial arts dojo, we dress in traditional garb that shows respect for the discipline and its history, for our instructors and for our fellow students; we take off our shoes; we bow to the sensei. We’re quiet. We turn off our iPhones. We stop texting.
The great part about a practice is it can be learned. There’s a syllabus. It’s not a mystery. The teacher starts us at Square One. He guides us. We practice; we get better. Our understanding deepens over time. We had thought, when we started, that we were teaching the calligraphy brush to do what we want, but now we see that the brush is teaching us. It’s teaching us patience. It’s humbling our ego. We finally produce a masterpiece and our instructor throws it into the fire. We’re learning. The end is nothing. The act is everything. The practice is everything.
But let’s get back to the real world–to us struggling artists and entrepreneurs trying to do our work. Us trying to overcome fear, self-doubt, arrogance, procrastination. How can a practice help us with that?
Our art can be a practice. Yeah, we may still have to make money at it; we may be serving a client or a marketplace; we may have to take commercial factors into consideration. But we can still make our work a practice. In The War of Art, I talk about how each day before I sit down I say a prayer to the Muse out loud. This is no joke. It’s not an airy-fairy conceit. The work we do as artists doesn’t come from ourselves but from some source we can’t see or touch or command, but that we can serve and we can invoke. Homer paid respect to that source. So did Musashi Miyamoto.
I stumbled onto a wonderful book in Hennessey & Ingalls called Where Women Create by Jo Packham and Jenny Doh. It’s a photo book about women’s art studios. There must be a hundred or so workspaces illustrated–studios for weavers, potters, decoupage artists, sculptors, carvers. What struck me was the sacredness of all these spaces, each one created by a different artist following only her own instincts and the requirements of her craft. Yeah, I’m sure the ladies spruced up their spaces for the camera, but still … these places are powerful; they’re charged with intention and love and the highest form of aspiration. It makes you proud, just to look at them. And it psyches you up.
To have a practice, you must have a space. But it’s the practice that makes the space. The daily application of intention, the seeking of excellence over time saturates the studio with power and energy. It casts out Resistance like a priest chasing the devil.
We started off speaking of Shame and Habit. These are grunt-level elements, nothing exalted about them. But they’re the good red bricks that underlie steady, strong work over time. They’re the foundation stones of discipline and perseverance. When we make our art a practice, when we make our workspace sacred and enter it daily with respect and high intention, then we elevate our actions (even if they’re taking place within the profane arena of commerce) beyond ego and above gimme-gimme ambition. At that point we might, if we’re lucky, touch something inspired. But even if we don’t, our practice centers us and strengthens us. It gives us a core that can’t be buffeted.
If you haven’t seen Where Women Create, I highly recommend it.