Sustenance: The Artist Way

“WHAT NEXT? My ‘future’ is the darkest thing in the world to me, but as there still remains a great deal for me to do, I suppose I ought rather to think of doing this than of my future, and leave the rest to THEE and the gods.”

~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A book for all and none, Introduction

Many years ago, I was gifted a book called, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book is a guide with space for journal entries. It’s an excellent source to explore your inner world as an artist and develop creativity. At that time, I was a classroom teacher and feeling pulled away from my writing. I had become engulfed in worries and practical matters. The book became an antidote to my suffering.

The artist way is not easy especially in a society that values linear, rational ways of thinking and doing. There is a dearth of reliable opportunities for artists to make an honest living and few non-competitive spaces for artists to gather, make art, network and build community. For these reasons, many artists (like myself) neglect their craft for years to invest in a career that purportedly promises financial security.

The artist way is not for the faint of heart. At its core, it’s a philosophy, a way of living and meaning is derived from personal experience. This phenomenological stance requires a sensitive open mind, bravery, and commitment. It is very personal, very intimate. It’s a lot like the spiritual practice Zen.

“Zazen that leads to Self-realization is neither idle reverie nor vacant inaction but an intense inner struggle to gain control over the mind and then to use it, like a silent missile, to penetrate the barrier of the five senses and the discursive intellect (that is, the sixth sense). It demands energy, determination, and courage.” ~Phillip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been grappling with sustaining the artist way and questioning its worth, it’s validity. In response to this perennial self-interrogation, my stomach hurt and I got chronic indigestion. This should not have been a surprise. The stomach region relates to the third chakra, or the Solar Plexus. This is the center of power, self-confidence, motivation and purpose. The gut, as it were, is the body’s center for will power and agency. When we experience pain in the stomach region, we’re not free. We’re immobilized and weakened considerably. That is why in meditation, there is much attention paid to breathing and focusing on the contraction and expansion of the muscles in the abdomen.

“Mental power, or we might say, spiritual power, in the sense of this strong inward concentration, comes from tension in the tanden… The power is sustained by the stimulation coming from the tension in the respiratory muscles of the abdomen… so we may regard these muscles—or the tanden in general—as the root of spiritual power…When the respiratory muscles are set to work, mental—or spiritual—power is put into action. The effect of the activity is reported to the brain, which will then think of further orders, and cyclical chains of processes will occur… The process is the same with emotional expression: laughter, anger, and sorrow cannot  manifest themselves unless the abdominal muscles are convulsed.” ~Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy (pps 49-51, p. 83-84)

Like all spiritual and creative journeys, there is a process, an evolution of awareness and healing that must occur to sustain oneself. Often, we find ourselves entangled or stuck in one area in our life that demands our attention, such as my present condition. In paying attention to my stomach/ Solar Plexus/ tanden, and focusing on healing and liberating energy (which involves water, rest, healthy diet, exercise, meditation and contemplation activities), I’m regaining health and new insight into the process of self-realization.

The first insight, which is what I have just written, but essential to underscore: one must pay attention to the message of the body. The body is a feedback loop that relates to your state of mind and spiritual path. Second, there is circumstantial evidence of overlapping and compounding experiences that I believe are designed as guides or clues into which behaviors/choices/pathways lead to personal well-being and healing. Following these cues with absolute trust, is an essential part of awakening to Self-realization and Self-reliance.

In my case, I’ve become more cognizant of unaddressed or unhealed wounds from the past, including but not limited to the trauma from the sudden death of my life partner. Perhaps, in my case, with the focus generating an imbalance in my Solar Plexus—I am being asked to complete the healing of this region and move in the world with greater confidence and sense of purpose, to value that which all along has endured and inspired me and others, that which is my truth and my beauty, that which I have loved to do throughout my entire life in spite of many things lost—

And this would be the artist way.

I am stepping into a boat at night, sailing off into the darkness and finding light. This is how I might describe my current experience. And this metaphor is not unlike the dark night of the soul as described by Thomas Moore:

“Imagine that your dark mood, or the external source of your suffering, is a large, living container in which you are held captive. But this container is moving, getting somewhere, taking you to where you need to go. You may not like the situation you’re in, but it would help if you imagined it constructively. Maybe at this very minute you are on a night sea journey of your own...There may be some promise, the mere suggestion that life is going forward, even though you have no sense of where you’re headed. It’s a time of waiting and sit with these things and in due time let them be revealed for what they are.”

2 responses to “Sustenance: The Artist Way”

  1. Nerissa Marisol Rivers-Lawrence Avatar
    Nerissa Marisol Rivers-Lawrence

    Insightful share.💜.

  2. Eagle Feather Avatar
    Eagle Feather

    Beautiful, insightful piece. I think you shared a lot of valid points, especially about how hard it is for an artist to make a living off of their artistry. Regarding the linear, pragmatic thinking of society, I think the voice inside most artists speaks with more vibrato than what the ubiquitous “they” have to say, however I do see the conflict in pursuing what you love and making a living. I also can empathize with one’s desire to create taking a backseat to creating a sustainable, self-sufficient life (by western standards).

    Bravery in art, for me, inserts itself as soon as I decide to share my creation with anyone. Maybe vulnerability is the better word. I guess it comes down to why do we choose to create? Are we seeking validity? Praise? A reaction, good or bad? To make a living? To release something within us? Maybe it depends on the timing of the piece or the catalyst to create it. I think the shadows of vulnerability and bravery overlap for artists.

    There’s a quote that I’ve always appreciated by Van Gogh and I lean into it any time I find myself swept up in “life” and pulled away from creating (artistry). “If you hear a voice saying, ‘You can not paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Even without a specific outcome in mind, I find the pieces sparked from that interior monologue offer me the greatest release and sense of comfort.

    Wishing you comfort, release and discovery throughout your voyage. Sending love always.