Musings on creativity from Yorkshire's Gangliest Diabetic Buddhist Theatre Director

Month: May, 2012

Week Six: Recovering a Sense of Abundance

Crikey. This blog is really late.

Not only is it really late but it is also going to be really annoying.

Two BIG THINGS have happened this week. They are good things. If both of them follow through then my professional, financial and personal life will be markedly improved. But both of the BIG THINGS are under embargo until everything is signed and sealed. Which is very annoying. Probably more so for you than for me, because I know what they are.

Sometimes the Universe (God, Mystic Law, etc.) grants our wishes. And sometimes that is much scarier than when it doesn’t. In Buddhism we have the concept of the Eight Winds; the eight forces in life which can blow you off-centre.

 ‘Worthy persons deserve to be called so because they are not carried away by the eight winds: prosperity, decline, disgrace, honour, praise, censure, suffering, and pleasure. They are neither elated by prosperity nor grieved by decline.’

When you are being constantly buffeted by a wind from one direction, you get used to compensating for it. You might even pride yourself on your strength in enduring it. But real strength is not falling over when it suddenly changes direction.

I had got so used to difficulties, to being stripped of the things on which my ego was built, that suddenly having the immediate potential of good things in my life has made me, not exactly fall over, but certainly become unsteady on my feet.

From my entirely subjective point of view, of course, none of this is a coincidence. It is not a co-incidence that these potentials appear after my appointment to a leadership responsibility in the Buddhist organisation. Nor is it a co-incidence that it has appeared while I am working through a chapter called ‘Recovering a Sense of Abundance.’

‘We secretly think that God wants us to be broke if we are going to be so decadent as to want to be artists.’ P. 107.

This week Julia challenged me to look at my issues surrounding money, and by extension, that sense of lack of self-worth which might keep us from achieving abundance. This isn’t Cosmic Ordering, nor is there a moral sense that people with money deserve it and those who don’t, don’t. Rather this is a personal thing about the ways in which our negative beliefs about ourselves and the Universe might block us off from the boundless potential of the world.

‘Art is born in expansion, in a belief in sufficient supply, it is critical that we pamper ourselves for the sense of abundance it bring us. . .  All too often, we become blocked and blame it on our lack of money. This is never an authentic block. The actual block is our feeling of constriction, our sense of powerlessness.’ P. 109

That sense of constriction has been a big thing for me all of my creative life. ‘I can’t be creative and happy until I’ve got money.’ And, ‘I definitely can’t get money through being happily creative.’

Julia isn’t saying that we should bankrupt ourselves in order to get that ‘must have item.’ She’s talking about being compassionate enough to ourselves to treat us to those little things we might deny ourselves unnecessarily, even if those things are free, like pretty pebbles, or a walk in the sun. In my case I went and, finally, bought myself some new shoes so I don’t get blisters on the way to work any more. Why did I wait so long? Did I feel I deserved blisters?

It’s time to tell you a story. The most important stories I’ve got. Hold it gently.

Tom’s Most Important Story

I had been chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo for a year and a half. During that time, lots of remarkable things had happened to me, but I wasn’t sure they were related to the practice. I was getting increasingly frustrated. Everyone else seemed to get this amazing feeling from chanting, like they were connected to the energy of the Universe, drawing forth this amazing strength from within. I just felt bored when I chanted. I loved the philosophy, I liked the activities, I enjoyed meeting up with the other members. But when I chanted I felt nothing. And I wanted to so badly.

My local leader challenged me. He said, ‘Go on a course, say yes to everything you’re asked to do, give everything you can give, then you’ll get your answer.’

‘What if nothing happens?’

‘Then you can go try something else.’

So I booked myself a place on a course in the south of France, knowing that if I didn’t feel something while chanting by the time I came back, I would quit the practice and go and try something else.

Having made that decision, I immediately regretted it; everyone was asking me to do things on the course; be part of the ushering team, MC, an entertainment. And the glee with which they asked me, ‘Go on, it will change your life,’ became increasingly off-putting. There’s nothing more annoying to someone in a grump than people who are really happy, and nothing more annoying to people who are feeling lost than those with conviction.

But I did say yes to everything. This led to some clashes, as I ended up MCing and ushering at the same time and kept running from the mike at the front of the room, to the back to open doors for people. I had a whale of a time, the pettiness seemed to fall away and I started to really connect to everyone else. By the last night, however, I still hadn’t felt anything when chanting. I hadn’t come there to enjoy myself; I’d come for a profound spiritual experience, and I wasn’t getting it.

I vented my frustration at a young woman there. She asked, ‘Do you think the reason you don’t feel a connection to your Buddhahood is that you don’t feel worthy of a connection?’

I allowed that to sink in for a moment.

Then I replied, ‘No, that’s post-Freudian bollocks. Fuck off.’

The next morning, still pissed off, I got up to chant. I said the first ‘Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo’ and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if she’s right?’

And – wumph – it hit me.

I experienced three things completely, fully, with all my senses.

Firstly, I was me as a young boy, weeping uncontrollably.

Secondly, I was me at the age I was when all this happened, holding that boy and weeping with him.

Thirdly, I was me, sat in the chanting room in the south of France, weeping uncontrollably.

A leader came up and gently put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Would you like to lead the chanting for a bit?’

I got into the chair at the front and continued to experience all three layers of reality; weeping boy, weeping young man holding that boy, and weeping young man sat in the south of France, wondering how much you can cry on a microphone before it explodes.

I realised then, that if the practice was able to show me that grief at the centre of my life, that it would be able to heal it.

Nine years later and that journey has led me here. And to taking this course. And writing these words. And to you reading them.

And of course, to the BIG THINGS. Which I can’t tell you about.

Other News

There were also not one but three pleasant experiences of creativity in the last week.

The Artist’s Way tasks for the last couple of weeks involved making a scrapbook of images of your ideal life; activities you’d like to do, things you’d like to own, clothes to wear and places to live. I did that and had great fun doing it. Turns out I really want to live in a tree house over-looking the sea. With an ipad and a nice suit. Not sure they all gel together into a coherent life-style but it was a very satisfying experience. I’m not going to post it though, as I was using Google images to compile it and it would take me a full working week to credit all the sources sufficiently to avoid law-suits.

As an Artist Date, I decided to gift myself something I haven’t really had for over a decade: an hour with no distractions to write whatever came into my head. I found a random title generator Clicked spin, picked one and then wrote for an hour, non-stop. And out it poured. I don’t know if it’s a short story or a strand of a novel, but I liked the feeling of it pouring out, and I liked how it looked once it was out. I’m not going to post it though because it’s not quite ready yet.

At work, I started directing some scenes with some students for a showing in late June. It’s my first time rehearsing (as opposed to leading a workshop) for over six months and it felt really good. I was oddly nervous, but it was very satisfying watching it all come together. I’m not going to post it though, because it was a transient moment in time and therefore resistant to capture in a digital format.

My big little sister sent me some origami ducks. I am going to post them here as I have a picture.

Back next week.

Week Five: Recovering a Sense of Possibility

Normally when I start these blogs I have a pretty good idea of what I’m going to say, the key points and references. I have no idea at the moment. This is a bit more Morning Pages-y. It’s been a remarkable week and I’m still processing it.

Through this very eventful week, my mood has fluctuated wildly. It’s been hard hearing my inner voice, the wisdom within, because there are other voices there, and I couldn’t tell how much the oppressive, unremitting grey of the sky, was the cause. (Just to be clear the voices are what I call the thoughts/feelings/desires rattling around in my head, rather than the voices perceived as external to the self found in schizophrenia.) By the sea, after an especially violent downpour the clouds dispersed, the sun came out and the air was clear and warm. I fell asleep on a bench facing the sea, lulled by the lapping waves, feeling lighter. But the journey is to create that lightness for myself, regardless of what the weather has in store.

This week Julia talks about our self-imposed limits and opening up to the idea that God/the Universe/Buddhahood has infinite potential. ‘God has lots of money. God has lots of movie ideas, novel ideas, poems, songs, paintings, acting jobs. God has a supply of loves, friends, houses that are available to us.’ p. 92. To access this plenty, though, takes action. It’s a mutual trust, rather than blind faith, the difference between ‘the Universe will take care of it so I might as well stay in bed,’ and, ‘I am going to take bold action and the Universe will back me up.’ ‘Pray to catch the bus, then run as fast as you can,’ says Julia. p. 92.

I have been looking out for synchronicity; me taking a step and the universe meeting me half way, opportunities opening up. The big fear coming up from last week was that maybe I haven’t changed anything deep in my heart over the years. And without that inner change I won’t see a dramatic change in my environment. This week, however, I have faced a number of those fears, and many tentative possibilities have begun to appear on the work and personal levels. In the space of a few days, I’ve changed a work relationship which was repeating old patterns, had a job interview, had some movement in a stuck relationship, found an opportunity to pitch a project and had a free (and much needed) weekend at the seaside. None of these things were conclusive but there are definitely doors where before there were walls; a sense of possibility is emerging.

The biggest, and most unlooked-for, event this week was that I was given a responsibility again in my Buddhist organisation. We call them Leaders here but I prefer the French word, Responsible. We don’t have a Priesthood as we are a lay organisation; each of us has a direct connection to that infinite potential in our lives. Some of us are invited to take responsibility for supporting members in our local areas. We don’t lead in that we can’t tell anyone what to do, but we take responsibility in our prayers to support the members on their journey to deep happiness. Our taking responsibility often involves encouraging the member to take full responsibility for their own lives. Going back to the old adage, we’re trying to remind people that they have a fishing rod and access to a teeming river, rather than supplying them with a limited amount of frozen fish.

I had a number of responsibilities when I lived in London. At one point I was responsible for supporting the young men in Oval Chapter, and I could walk from one end of the chapter to the other in about 30 minutes. On Tuesday I was asked to be Chapter leader up here. I asked the name of the chapter. ‘North Yorkshire.’ The membership is much less densely packed up here!

It feels significant to have come home and to receive this responsibility. I started practising this Buddhism once I’d left York for London, so practising where I grew up feels like two previously unrelated halves of my life joining up.

Every major success or break-through I have had in the last decade has coincided with getting a new responsibility or doing a big Buddhist activity. So, when I received the appointment, I understood the context of the difficulties I’d been facing last week. The Universe was confronting me with a load of unfinished business, precisely so I could finish them and move forward into this new, well, chapter.

There’s one other source of synchronicity that came up this week. I met a number of people who have changed things in their lives and they have stayed changed. One was a member who used his practice to challenge a deep relationship problem, one was a fellow director, who thanks to having done AW is able to encourage those who might otherwise represent the competition. And I met up with an old friend who has been doing a lot of work on herself (in her case therapy), having been through very similar things to me, and had similar reactions. She worked her way through these, slowly and painfully but very thoroughly. Lastly she suffered a great personal loss. It knocked her down, but she got back up. Just being around her now, you sense the solidity at the core of her life, which is new and powerful. When I was doubting that I had really grown or made real changes, here was someone demonstrating that it is possible. As she described it, you still hurt, you still feel joy, but either way, you know you’re going to cope.

It reminded me of the Buddhist phrase, ‘Suffer what there is to suffer, and enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens. How could this be anything other than the boundless joy of the Law? Strengthen your power of faith more than ever.’

Julia talks about Creative Recovery as being the process of learning to trust your inner creativity/God/Buddhahood and as that trust grows you become less dependant on the things you used to believe brought you happiness. ‘We are learning to give up idolatry – the worshipful dependency on any person, place, or thing. Instead, we place our dependency on the source itself.’ p. 96. What I think she is talking about, and the Daishonin is saying above, is that through developing faith in our selves and our connection the wisdom of the Universe, we leave aside conditional happiness, based on fulfilling our small desires for food, love, sex, wealth, success, and avoiding troubles and loss, and basing our happiness on ourselves and the knowledge that we can over-come any challenge that we face, surmount any loss. This means that we can enjoy what there is to enjoy without being swept along with them (food, love, sex, wealth, success aren’t bad, they are just not all that.) We can also grieve a loss or be hurt by pain, but with the sense that this too, shall pass. It won’t destroy or weaken us. We don’t need to crave the positive emotions, or fear the negative, as we are stronger than enough to work through either.

I’m a long way from really feeling that in my heart. I am still needing rather than just wanting ‘what there is to enjoy’, and wanting to flee ‘what there is to suffer’. But I am making progress. As, hopefully, you will hear next week.

Week Four: Recovering a Sense of Integrity

Warning: This Blog Contains Strong Language and Scenes of Strong, Bloody Negativity.


When I was 13 I read a book on Shamans and Artists. I’ve looked for it since but can’t remember its name. The author describes the classic shamanic journey; the shaman sets off on a quest to heal a person, or a group. The quest takes them down into the underworld, where the shaman is dismembered, then reassembled, then they return to the land of the living, with the healing or wisdom they sought.

The author argued that artists, in the widest Julia-esque definition, are modern society’s shamans. The distinction between craftspeople and artists is that artists are prepared to go on that journey to their inner darkness, lose themselves, and come back with that inspiration which creates great, healing art. He argues that McCartney was a craftsperson, unwilling to make the journey, while Lennon was a true Shaman-artist. Bowie, is an artist, Elvis is someone who started an artistic journey but whose path was aborted through bad influences and I think Chaplin may have been a Shaman-artist too but my memory of that chapter is hazy.

This book had a very profound effect on me. From then on I understood that when there were difficulties, if you run away from the darkness you end up back where you started, but if you run through it, then, after pain and tribulations, you emerge somewhere new and amazing. I carry that story of the Shaman-artist with me everywhere, but there have been many moments when knowing this truth hasn’t helped and I have wanted to run, screaming, back to the safety of my imperfect start. Being a hero, an artist, a Shaman, is a scary thing. Better the familiar and broken, than the unknown and transformative.

So I’ve had two voices in my head during Week 4, which has been fucking awful. One voice has been saying that this is the journey, that the Artist’s Way is really working now, precisely because it’s sending me to a very dark place. And there’s the other part, a wounded child, desperate to run home.

There are a number of possible reasons for my descending into the underworld:

1)    I returned at the end of week 3 to the site of some pretty nasty experiences and met people who were still suffering it.

2)    I undertook the intensive weekend of therapy.

3)    I’m a quarter of the way through this 12 week journey.

4)    I’m post-viral from flu three weeks ago, the doctor says it may continue to effect my inner ear for a few weeks. If you like the idea of spending your life on the seven seas I heartily recommend the constant sea-sickness of inner ear problems. If, on the other hand, you have challenging stuff to deal with it’s a nightmare.

5)    I have re-encountered four old karmic patterns, which I thought I had well and truly broken and would never have to face again. Four of the fuckers! In a week! With the attendant feeling that maybe I haven’t grown or changed anything in the last ten years of my practice.

6)    The weather has been oppressively grey and wet non-stop (wettest April on records.)

7)    This week was Reading Deprivation week in the Artist’s Way.

Reading Deprivation

Julia challenged me not to read anything for a week. ‘For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers.’ So go cold turkey, she says. ‘Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence.’ P.87

What this actually involves is hazy. She wrote this pre-mass-adoption of e-mail and a cultural aeon before Twitter and Facebook. So the deal I made with myself was this – seven days of responding to work and social messages and texts but no passive absorption; no spooling through Twitter or Facebook feed-browsing, no webcomics, no books and, crucially, no podcasts. She’s absolutely right about words being a drug. Every spare moment I’m not concentrating I have head-phones on and am being sedated by Melvyn Bragg, Mark Kermode and Adam and Joe. And I do it to drown out the awful voice of my critic, constantly carping on. I sort of knew this about myself, but it wasn’t until I had to lose the words entirely that I realised how bad it had got. My mood plummeted like a stone. And it was as if all that I had learnt about myself, all that I have achieved, fell away, and I was back as a kid, wailing ‘Poor me’ at every thing that happened.

And where was this synchronicity that I was told to look out for? Working in reverse. Lots of challenging situations? Oh, here comes post-viral infection and a constant spinning sensation. Desperately trying to e-mail through some work before a deadline? Here’s a power cut which takes out the entire street for a whole day and part of a night. And all this through constant, driving rain. When you’re feeling down, there’s nothing like stepping out of your front door and feeling your rain pass through your trousers, and then your underwear becoming instantly water-logged to help you keep a buoyant frame of mind.

I fell off the wagon on day five. I was watching someone else leading a youth workshop, for a little professional development, and he was illustrating a point using 99 Ways to Tell A Story, a comic in which a very simple one page story is told 99 different ways. I thought, well I’ll just have a peek. After all, I don’t know when I’ll encounter this book again. Then the room disappeared, the children and the workshop disappeared and, oh joys! I disappeared. It’s a joyous book, and I like my books with pictures. I was completely unaware of anything until I finished it an hour later and then the world, including me and my critic, bled back in.

I managed to go back to cold turkey after that, but the cravings were worse.

When the seven days were up, I allowed myself a sip of Buddhist literature, and it was like coming home after a long journey. For a while now I’ve had a real problem with Buddhist writings; nothing seems to go in – I have to reread the same paragraph over and over again, but that first read after the week was like drinking from a cool stream.

Slowly I got myself back on to solids. When my mood was bottoming out I allowed myself a News Quiz. As a treat, having overcome several challenges in short order I allowed myself to finish a novel, Little Brother, on Saturday night. The novel (written for teenagers, so perfect for me) made me remember why I don’t read literature much (most of my reading is plays and non-fiction.) It’s not that I don’t get anything from novels. It’s that I get too much. I am a slow reader. I even went for a dyslexia test earlier in the year, but they said I was just slow at reading. And crap at spelling. When I’m reading I feel everything the characters feel, but, unlike a film or a play, I know it’s not going to be resolved in a couple of hours, I’m going to be with that feeling for days and weeks. Little Brother had my heart pounding as our hero faces off against the unfairness and oppression of Homeland Security’s over-reaction to the War on Terror, and it’s attempts to strip him of his civil liberties. At least his face isn’t eaten by rats in the end.

I’m not sure where all this leaves me. I’m looking at my linguistic diet; I’m still off the feeds, cautious about surfing the net, deriving great pleasure from my more selective use of podcasts. Julia says this process lets you hear your inner voice. I didn’t like mine. It was shrieking in pain.

‘Faced with impending change, change we set in motion through our own hand, we want to mutiny, curl up in a ball, bawl our eyes out. “No pain, no gain,” the nasty slogan has it. And we resent this pain no matter what gain it is bringing us.

“I don’t want to raise my consciousness!” we wail. “I want. . . “And thanks to the morning pages we learn what we want and ultimately become willing to make the changes needed to get it. But not without a tantrum. And not without a kriya, a Sanskrit word meaning a spiritual emergency or surrender. (I always think of kriyas as spiritual seizures. Perhaps they should be spelled crias because they are cries of the soul as it is wrung through changes.)’ p.81.

Well, quite.

And this struck a real chord too:

‘As we gain – or regain – our creative identity, we lose the false self we were sustaining. The loss of this self can feel traumatic: “I don’t know who I am anymore. I don’t recognize me.”’

I gave myself some bonus days after the reading deprivation, so I’m technically about a week behind now. And I am completely lost in the dark. I don’t know who I am or where I’m heading. But I know if I stop now I’ll drift back to where I started. The only way now is forward and down, to be torn apart, and reassembled and come back with a gift. Time to go deeper down the rabbit hole.

‘The journey from Kamakura to Kyoto takes twelve days. If you travel for eleven but stop with only one day remaining, how can you admire the moon over the capital?’

(Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, p. 1027)

As a post script, I would like to apologise to everyone I stood up, ignored and generally let down this week. Also I want to thank everyone who’s going on this journey with me, especially Hazel, who sent me a squirrel:

Final post-script. I managed most of the exercises this week, plus morning pages every day. I didn’t manage to fit in an artist’s date and and am running low on ideas for them, so feel free to send Artist Date dares!

Inspiring Things in My Room: 4 Rex and his new Career

Rex the Runt lives to make people smile.