Will Awakening Ruin My Art?

by Jessica Graham

Awakening will destroy your life. Whatever you think is yours to claim, will fall away. The self that has been driving you to do better, push harder, and succeed more grandly than the last time, will burn away to a sprinkling of ashes. But from that smokey rubble will arise a new understanding of success. A success that isn’t based on being the best, but rather on just being. This transition takes time and can be painful and awkward. For me, losing my drive to be an artist was especially gut-wrenching.

I’ve been creating art of one kind or another since I was in diapers. As a kid I wrote, directed, and starred in “variety shows.” I’d wrangle my all my sisters and brothers for rehearsals and then a big performance for our parents. Or I’d tape record talk shows in which I was the host and also all the guests, with a plethora of accents and stories to share. Writing has been a part of my life since I learned to write. I have journals from age 6 on. I was also a ballerina until at age 12 smoking cigarettes and talking to boys seemed like more fun than leotards and buns.

My love of the arts is what kept me alive during the dark years. No matter how far down the rabbit hole of drugs and alcohol I went, I’d always pop back up to make a film, or produce a play, go to an acting class, or even just see a good movie. I loved making and enjoying art more than I loved oblivion. So, not only am I passionate about making films and other creative endeavors, I owe art my life. Perhaps as much as I owe meditation my life

When I first started meditating there were a series of awakenings that rocked my world. I went from being one person to being a very different person in a matter of a few short years. One of the first things that changed was my driven attitude around my creative career. Until meditation, creativity was my one love. It always won out over my significant others even. I had one girlfriend who would just shake her head as I headed off to the theater on holidays, birthdays, and pretty much every day. I was slightly enmeshed with my creative life.

So when I fell in love with meditation, it became a new love that tore me out of the arms of art. The drive to be a successful actor, filmmaker, or writer fell away like I was shedding my skin. At first I was terrified. Who would I be if I weren’t striving every day to be better, do more? I felt like I was losing my best friend, my lover, and my guardian angel all at once. Not to mention losing the identity that I had painstakingly held together for so long. I was losing Me.

But soon I saw that there was no Me to lose. The strands of thoughts and emotions that had created this sense of self were seen for what they were. Just some impermanent phenomena that I had mistaken for Me. Once this was realized it became easy to let go of my attachment to who I thought I had to be as an artist.

I saw that much of my outward creativity up until then had been fueled by a need to be seen and loved. Performing was something that my parents noticed and celebrated when I was young. I remember the feeling of seeing my father’s pride when his friends said how great I was in the school play. I remember thinking that maybe if I were good enough (talented enough, famous enough) he would love me more than he loved alcohol. Incidentally he came to all of my plays when I was a teenager so drunk he could barely walk. Later after the DUIs he always left right afterwards so he could get back home to his fridge full of beer. He was always proud, and he always let me know that. But I never became more important than drinking. That’s the way it goes with addiction. All that to say, there were some deep reasons why I felt driven in my creative life. And those reasons fell away as my attachment to self dissolved.

So I let go of my acting representation, let go of my “look” for commercials, let go of the constant need to show up at the right party just in case I met the right person who might choose me to act in their film. I let go of that whole life. I gave in to the death of that part of me. And I was happy for a while. Just meditating, teaching meditation, going on meditation retreats, listening to talks on meditation, meditating while eating, driving, and shaving my legs. I suffered less and less and my life was filled with a peaceful happiness. It also started to get a bit, well, boring.

Then something really cool started to happen. I began to ache to perform and create. I knew I didn’t want to try to relive the past. I wanted something new and fresh and alive. There was no “drive” to BE an artist. This desire to make art was coming from something much greater than a tiny part of me that wanted approval and admiration. So after being a “self-trained” actor and writer all my life I started taking classes. I was finally humble enough to learn thanks to all the meditation. I took writing classes and entered a three-year acting program that kicked my butt and turned me on to no end. I also helped produce a short film that went on to have a successful festival run and online release.

During this time I started to come up against some old wounds around my creativity. Feelings of “not good enough” and thoughts about it being too late for me to be an artist would surface and try to get me to believe them. Some days I did. I felt very stunted and limited. I also found myself constantly supporting others in their creative pursuits, acting as cheerleader aka producer for other people’s visions. While I continue to support others in their projects, at that time it was a way to stay small and keep my own visions in a box.

My partner was and is very free in his creativity, and by contrast I felt like I was in a cage of bad memories and old beliefs. I would watch him booking roles, writing scripts, painting massive abstract works, translating ancient poetry and feel like I would never be able to express myself so freely and with such skill and beauty. One day we were driving around and I was telling him how much I wanted to express myself creatively and how I still felt stuck. He turned the car around, drove us to a little indie bookstore, parked in a loading zone, saying, “be right back!” He returned with a copy of The Artist’s Way and told me that he had seen it help other people. I figured, why not?

So I added that to my daily meditation practice (and all the other things we do to heal) and I set an intention. I would start to share my art with the world again, but from this new perspective of freedom from outcome or attachment to proving myself to be a “success.” I was clear and focused, but there was no sense of urgency. I was willing to take it one day at a time.

I wrote a lot, meditated a lot, went to my classes, and told my friends and community of my intention. I also rearranged my teaching a bit. Instead of teaching most days, I only spent half the week focused on my new love, teaching meditation. That way I could dedicate the other half of my time to my first love, art. I guess you could say that I began a polyamorous relationship with spirituality and creativity. And—surprise, surprise—came to know that there is no separation between the two. It was only my mind that wanted to draw that line.

That was only a few short years ago. It astonishes me to see what has happened in that time. I made a short film and feature film both as an actor and producer, got cast in several projects, started writing for multiple online magazines in addition to Deconstructing Yourself, got a book deal, and grew my teaching in a lovely way. It can feel a little magical to me, but when I look back I see that it has been a long road of hard work and lots of support from others. It’s not enough to set the intention, you first have to be open to the possibility of that intention, and then be willing to take the necessary steps. It’s not like The Secret.

This new relationship with my creative life has actually provided more awesome opportunities than I ever could have imagined before. I am now able to hang on loosely to my creative work, which of course makes me better at my crafts. There’s none of that fear and desperation that often accompanied a project in the past. I’m freer and braver as an actor, writer, and filmmaker because I’m freer as a person. I get to inhabit my creativity fully, without the filter of who I think I am. And now I’ve stepped into directing.

This is something I have always wanted to do, but never thought I could do. I thought to be a director you had to have vision and who did I think I was to step into that role. I didn’t think I had what it took, so I never tried. But through this process of rediscovering my creativity I realized who am I not to step into that role. And so I did. It was delicious! I loved every moment of it. I also found that I have my own cheerleaders, people who truly want to support me in my creative evolution. I’ve had them all along it was just hard to accept that support when I couldn’t offer it to myself.

The film still needs to be edited, and color corrected, and all the rest of the post-production fun, but I have now had the experience of directing and I have a feeling it won’t be my last. All these years of meditation, and inner work, cleared the way for me to expand creatively. Even better, I get to keep expanding and evolving. I have no idea what will happen next (well I do know that I have to finish my book…) and I’m so excited for the next adventure.

At this point in my life I am fully embracing and lavishing in the wonder of creativity and art. It’s become a part of my everyday, and an important way that I connect with other humans. Making a film, or writing this article is my way to continue the age-old tradition of telling stories, my way to engage with my humanity. Coming out of my generally stress-free life to make a film is completely worth it. The tension in my shoulders that my partner has been massaging away all week is worth it. The sleepless nights before the shoot are worth it. The risk of “failure” is worth it. The joy of the process greatly outweighs the pain. And meditation keeps that pain from becoming suffering. So why not go for it? What else would I want to do with this “one wild and precious life?”

Meditation shows us that life can be a bit cyclical. We feel good, we feel bad, we feel good, we feel bad, we feel neutral, we feel bad, we feel good… and so on. Saṃsāra is the sanskrit word for this. It’s a kind of endless wandering through this human experience. Meditate for a while and this insight will hit you like a sock full of quarter rolls. Yes, it can be a bit painful to see that you are in the Matrix with no hope for escape. Waking up doesn’t excuse you from that. You may be crystal clear that it’s all an illusion. You may know that your thoughts and emotions are as empty as my bank account after making a film. You may not suffer anymore, or at least rarely. It doesn’t matter, you’re still part of the virtual reality, at least until your body dies. After that, I have no clue what happens.

So, I say why not have a good time while you are here? What better way to do that than to create art? Make the most of the monotony. Choose to make meaning and engage with life. Explore your passions. Do what you enjoy. Celebrate your creativity.  Express what only you can express. And As Joseph Campbell says “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” Who knows, maybe one of those doors leads out of the Matrix?

If your spiritual practice had stripped you of your desire to create art, trust that your creativity will return. When it does it will be washed clean. No longer cloudy with fear or marred with the need for approval. Instead your creativity will come from a place that words can not describe. Truth will “bubble up from your subconscious” just like Michael told me years ago when I was afraid I’d lose my creativity. This new arising of artistic expression will tear you apart in the most beautiful ways, as it heals and nourishes you. You will find that when you create art you are of service to something much greater than just a small grasping self. In fact you may begin to realize that your creativity comes from something that transcends self all together.

Don’t think that awakening locks the door on being a painter, or actor, or musician, or writer, or any activity of self that you may wish to inhabit. Rather your awakenings will only clarify and deepen your creativity. You don’t need to suffer to make good art. Let me say that again. You don’t need to suffer to make good art. I happier than I’ve ever been and I can still access the shadow and channel it into my art in disturbing and delightful ways.

Your spiritual practice will set the artist in you free. No longer bound to your past or some cookie cutter image of success, you will thrive and blossom. It will probably take time and hard work, but do not give up. The world needs you. You are so tiny and insignificant, and so very unique and vital. Hold space for both of those truths and go make some art!

We never know where our creativity will take us. This article was going to be a list of tips for mindful movie making,  and this came out instead. Let your art and your spirituality surprise you. Let it knead and shape you into something you can’t recognize. Let it take you back again and again to beginner’s mind. The adventure will just keep unfolding, if we like it or not, so get on the ride and enjoy.

Photo Credit: Elödie LG

Comments

  1. Jessica, I was unaware of you and your work until I discovered this piece on Twitter. Your thoughts and experience strike a chord in all of us who have struggled with the seeming paradox around creativity and mindfulness practice. Your words are inspiring and liberating. Thank you for sharing them!

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