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

Category: Artist’s Way

Week Eleven: Recovering a Sense of Autonomy

Nearly there, and of course, blog is late again! It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. I’ve done Sheffield, Bradford, Wakefield, York, Liverpool, Stockton. I have spent a lot of time on trains (all of that time put to good effect; got some work and a lot of creative play done) but not enough time in bed.

The main thing I did in this Artist’s Way week was direct, and, to my surprise, perform in a multi-voice poem about, and performed by residents of Skye Edge. Skye Edge is a slightly run down estate perched on top of a hill which falls away to amazing views of Sheffield. As one participant put it when you stand on the Edge ‘it’s like windsurfing in the sky.’ The locals were interviewed and then their words were turned into beautifully evocative poetry by Sally Goldsmith. I blogged the whole process, including my creative vulnerability, on the Freedom Studios website, so I’ll keep it brief this time and refer you to these:

As I say in the last one, the response from audience and participants was fantastic and it made we wonder about the value of that work, sat along side more high profile work I’ve done with professionals. Julia had wise words to say about the value we place on our creativity:

‘The market may be rotten even when the work is great. I cannot control these factors. Being true to the inner artist often results in work that sells – but not always. I have to free myself from determining my value and the value of my work by my work’s market value. . .

I must learn that as an artist my credibility lies with me, God, and my work. In other words, if I have a poem to write, I need to write that poem – whether it will sell or not.’

As I say, I have been crazy busy doing fantastic things, but none the less, crazy busy. Within that it’s been vitally important to take snatches of time for me, ensuring I was visiting the creative well before I dried up. The particular well I went for was running and wandering.

‘Most blocked creatives are cerebral beings. We think of all the things we want to do but can’t. Early in recovery, we next think of all the things we want to do but don’t. In order to effect a real recovery, one that lasts, we need to move out of the head and into a body of work. To do this, we must first of all move into the body.’

I’ve managed three runs (the last back to my top speed of 5km in 30 mins, stat fans!) and several wanders. One wander took me past York gallery, which I haven’t been in since I was a child. And I experienced the gallery like a child, wandering and allowing certain things to catch my attention, others to slide past, not forcing anything. There was a video on a loop. A man had swum in the sea from Scarborogh, with a camera (presumably water-proof) strapped to his head. As the dark sea rolled beneath me, it was like I was there, and I got that feeling of awe I get whenever I look at the vastness of the sea. It was great.

I had an hour free before catching the train back from Liverpool (on which I am writing this post) and I took myself for a wander, obeying the instinct to drift rather than sitting down in a cafe and start writing funding applications. I noticed this.

I didn’t have time to see the exhibition but I like to think that it was referring to what my dad calls ‘Wanderment’, the desire to stroll, directionless, exploring, rather than advertising a particular exhibit.

And now, we enter the final stretch. On to week 12.

Inspiring Things in My Room: 9 Serenity

‘There’s no place I can’t be

Since I found Serenity.

You can’t take the sky from me.’


So let’s take it as read that Firefly is 588 minutes of the best television ever made. (Sceptical? Go watch it. I’ll wait.) Also, it’s just had its tenth birthday.

Serenity represents a number of things. First up, is Freedom; it allows the characters to live a life in constant transit; all journey, no destination. A useful image for someone who’s trying to live in the moment and be less hung up on ‘getting there.’

Second, it represents Resistance. Named after the last, ill-fated battle of those who opposed the Alliance, it represents the ability to stand up and speak out against the devilish nature of authority.

Third and final, it represents family. In the story a disparate group of people come together to form a surprisingly functional family. In interviews I am often asked to say which director I would most like to emulate. The truth  I would most like to be Joss Whedon; watch the Making Of: you can see the sense of playfulness and the sense of belonging Joss enabled his cast to experience. The feeling of playfulness enables the actors to go further, take risks, experiment. The safety is creatively useful for artists engaged in the incredibly difficult and pressurised process of collaborating on a piece of art. And that playfulness and camaraderie, the sense of being on a journey together, infuses the work on screen. So that once you’ve sailed on Serenity you feel like part of that family forever.

Inspiring Things in My Room: 8 The Ultimate Object of Devotion

I’m writing this on my way back from watching a friend of mine receive her Gohonzon. Receiving Gohonzon is to my form of Buddhism as Confirmation is to Christians. You might have been chanting for a while (I’ve know people receive after three months and others after seven years; I took just under two), it’s an act of commitment (not a binding legal one) akin to getting married. It’s like getting married to your highest wisdom and potential and making a promise to work together, through good times and the inevitable bad ones, no matter what.

Gohonzon receiving ceremonies really are like weddings in that I tend to well up during them and afterwards there is sometimes cake. I’ve been lobbying for Pimms as well but that hasn’t caught on yet.

Anyway, that’s the receiving ceremony. But what is it you are actually receiving? A scroll, written in classical Chinese,  modeled on the original one made by Nichiren Daishonin, the monk who spread the practice of chanting Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.

He lived a remarkable life. At the time (12th C Japan) the country was divided into parishes and if you were a peasant you were forced to support the temple of that parish, regardless of what form of Buddhism the temple may belong to. Imagine you were Church of England and you got a letter from the government one day saying that due to your post-code you were required to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Like that. Additionally, these temples and their different sects of Buddhism encouraged the locals to donate to support the monks there, on the promise that, if the peasants kept their heads down in this life, they would be rewarded with Enlightenment in one of their future lives (or if you were of low social status you might come back rich. Or if you were a woman you might be fortunate enough to come back as man.) There was no sense that people could achieve enlightenment in their current life or that there was any point in changing the world they lived in, or that people are equally wonderful regardless of social rank or gender.

The Daishonin stood up against all that and taught people that they already had all the wisdom in the Universe in their lives and that by having faith in their own potential and that of others, they could reveal it. And the key to developing that faith was chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Obviously, this rattled a few cages. It rattled the cages of everyone who had something to gain by persuading people not to fight for a better world now, but to put up with their poverty and injustice. It annoyed everyone who was kept very comfortably and in positions of great power, by the donations and worship they received. It vexed everyone whose political position depended on the support of powerful Temples and Priests.

Unsurprisingly this pissed off loads of powerful people and as a result they heaped persecutions on the Daishonin, including repeatedly trying to kill him, and finally they exiled him, despite already frail health, to a freezing inhospitable island, full of other exiles, most of whom were ardently opposed to his beliefs. It was practically a death sentence.

Remarkably, his faith kept him alive through these various persecutions, sometimes miraculously. Finally, living in a barely-standing shack in the middle of a field where the locals left their dead to be eaten by birds and worms, starving and ill, he remained unbeaten in spirit. And he knew that this was because he was revealing the great potential inherent in his life, tapping that energy we all have access to.

Up until then many sects prayed to statues of Buddha. The original intention may have been to reflect that they too could manifest the qualities of the Buddha, but over time that got lost and it became, ‘Oh please help me Buddha, because you are way more amazing than I could ever be, and I am rubbish and incapable without your help.’ Which is exactly the opposite of what the Buddha would have wanted.

So the Daishonin, in his freezing shack, wondered what object could people pray to; what would be the ‘ultimate object of devotion’, which, when chanted at, would connect people in to their own immense power, rather than seeking salvation from some external force. So he made the Gohonzon; he wrote Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, representing all the amazing power of the Universe, down the middle, and around it he wrote the names of Gods and Demons representing all the different aspects of life, positive and negative. The Gohonzon was a diagram, showing the truth of our lives; that, amidst the varied realities of our lives, the heart of our being, is this amazing capacity of wisdom, courage and compassion.

In that sense the Gohonzon is a mirror which shows us back our highest potential. Crucially, it is not in itself magic, or able to sort out our problems for us. The Daishonin warned ‘Never search for the Gohonzon outside yourself.’

The respect we show the Gohonzon, then, is the respect we show to our own highest potential. So we keep it in special box, we don’t take photos of it, we make offerings of fruit, incense, water and greenery (I’m using cacti because my greenery kept becoming brownery), we keep the area dusted, etc. We are offering those things to ourselves; they are metaphors which have meaning because we imbue them with meaning. On those days when I can’t believe in my own potential, when I want to curl up and for the world to leave me alone, the act of caring for and respecting the object which represents my higher self enables me to reveal the self-respect which I would otherwise struggle to muster.

And then when you chant, with the Gohonzon reflecting back the truth of your life, then you can start, sometimes painfully, to see the things you can change, the ways you can grow.

So, this would be most inspiring object and I’m very grateful to my younger self for deciding to make that commitment. It’s been an eventful marriage so far, which has required a great deal of work, but one I’m very glad I entered into.

Inspiring Things in My Room 7: Lightsaber

So, where to start? Obviously, I’ve always wanted to be a Jedi. Who wouldn’t? Obviously not in the prequel (where suddenly they are not allowed to experience any emotions [bad Anarkin – don’t love your mum] and can’t even get jiggy) but in the original trilogy where they have great power and insight. And glowing swords.

I found this one lying in the mud one day while out for a run. I looked around to see if there were any wailing and bereft children nearby. As there weren’t, I pulled it out of the ground. I’d love to say I did this using The Force, but instead I had to bend over and pick it up, which when you’re my size is quite a significant investment of energy. But I did it, because this wasn’t just any lightsaber. This is a green lightsaber.

Luke starts off his quest into Jedidom with his dad’s sabre; which glows blue. But then he goes on his journey of self-mastery, in which he has to grapple with and overcome his own anger and fear. He learns that ‘there is no try, only do,’ and that there is a field which surrounds and pervades all living beings (stop me if the Buddhistness is too obvious). Anyway, having learnt all this brilliant stuff, he takes the final step. He makes his own saber. And then as he is being really tested by the Emperor, he snaps and uses it to attack his father. The Emperor goads him on. And then Luke wins and changes not just the course of his life, but that of the whole galaxy.

And he wins not by using the sword, but by turning it off.

Yes, the green one is the one he puts away. And that’s the sort of weapon I like to have lying around; the one which achieves its purpose by being resisted at all costs, something which teaches us to always search for the other way. Because as long as we allow violence to be a potential solution to anything, we will never give 100% to exhausting the other options. Maybe there are some situations which can only be resolved through violence. Maybe there is such a thing as a justified war, a righteous fight. But for me, if it ever comes down to it, I hope that I would die fighting with my heart, not weapons, to find another way.

And this lightsaber reminds me of that.

Plus it lights up.

Week Nine: Recovering a Sense of Compassion

It’s funny this whole ‘ask and you shall receive’ thing. I asked for a creatively stimulating and socially worthwhile job which would fit around my existing commitments. I also asked for some time and space to write. And, more prosaically, a better laptop to work on, since my old one is over-heating and cutting out at inopportune moments.

I am writing this on the commute back from Bradford, spending the day planning a project designed to celebrate older people as valuable and creative members of society. The commute is an hour straight, no changing, on comfortable trains. I am working on my work laptop, a couple of models later than my own, half a kilo lighter and substantially more reliable.

We had a consultant in today so the two other core staff members and I could talk through our aims and expectations for the next year’s work. Just the act of briefly describing our life journey to get us to this point was more emotional than I’d anticipated, as was realising  just how perfect the role is for me, how much it will support my artistic development and how much it ties in with my own personal ethos.

We were asked to make a poster showing where the session had left us. I couldn’t find words so I made a picture.

Having laboriously climbed out of the murk and suffering behind me, with the support of many people, I come to the cliff edge. Putting my pack down, I spread my wings. I thought I’d been looking for some stability. But actually safety doesn’t necessarily feed art. So now I have to jump in order to continue the journey. And, of course, there are people to make that journey with me too.

This all ties in nicely (doesn’t it always?) with this week’s themes.


My greatest fear is that I am too lazy/undisciplined/undedicated to be a truly great artist. The first play I ever wrote was about a ballet dancer at the end of his career reflecting on whether the dedication had been worth it and trying to decide whether to take on a protégée and encourage them to make the same sacrifices. I was already grappling with the idea that dedication and obsessive focus equal success and that laziness and distraction equal failure. (Interesting to return to that idea of dedication and its cost as 15 year olds are cleaning up in the Olympics.)

‘We have wanted to create and we have been unable to create and we have called that inability laziness. This is not merely inaccurate. It is cruel. Accuracy and compassion serve us far better.

Blocked artists are not lazy. They are blocked.

Being blocked and being lazy are two different things. The blocked artist typically expends a great deal of energy – just not visibly. The blocked artist spends energy on self-hatred, on regret on grief, and on jealousy. The blocked artist spends energy on self-doubt. . .

The need to be a great artist makes it hard to be an artist.

The need to produce a great work of art makes it hard to produce any art at all. . .

Do not call procrastination laziness. Call it fear. . .

Use love for your artist to cure its fear.’ p.152

Right here is the heart of the trap I’ve lived my post-adolescent life. To be perfect requires total dedication. If there is any lapse in this perfection, then I must be a failure, mustn’t I? And at that point, is there any reason to get out of bed?

‘In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. . . The part of us that creates best is not a driven, disciplined automaton. . . Over an extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline. Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.’ p.153.

Oh, can you imagine? Wanting, yearning to work without that self-battle? Bliss.

Those of you who are following this blog will be aware of the extent to which procrastination has been swamping me, based on the massive hiatus from Week 8’s blog to Week 9. I could blame the fact that my work-load has essentially doubled, but actually there has been time. But those moments when I could have worked on this, or gone on artist date, or done an exercise from the book, or nurtured my inner artist in some way, I have twittered away my time. The worst thing being that, rather than really enjoying whatever displacement activity I’ve been engaging in, it has been an exhausting guilt-filled self-battle.  As Julia says, my non-productive time isn’t lazy, it’s exhausting.

In the case of the Artist Way; what is it I’m really afraid of? Finishing something I’ve been starting and never finishing for well over a decade? What if I get to the end of this process and it’s thrown up a load of personal issues but failed to resolve any of them? What if I’m left with all these unresolved questions but without the context and tools of this course; the thing which makes the painful self-discoveries easier is the sense that it’s part of a process which will eventually resolve. So, yes, I’m scared of finishing, of what comes next.

Of course I know that this 12 week course can’t resolve everything; life is a constant process of self-discovery and change, and with support of my friends, family, colleagues and my Buddhist practice, I will definitely continue to grow. But I hope that this course can create a momentum of change, especially as this week (or rather the month I’ve spent on it) has seen me banging up against a lot of blocks.

I’ve written before about the magical feeling I used to have when writing short stories for exams; the sense of words flowing. I’ve been working on a short(ish) story for a few weeks now. I wrote it by asking a random title generator on the interwebs to do its thing. I then wrote for one hour solid, with a timer. Unlike those times decades ago when the whole thing flowed out with a beginning, a middle and an end, I got the odd image, false starts, changes of direction, but by the end of the hour,  while I didn’t have all the words, I did have both a story and the sensations I wanted it to evoke. Ever since then, I’ve been giving the odd 30 mins here and there to it, as opportunity and procrastination will allow. And it’s agony. It feels like I’m pulling each sentence out of myself with pliers with my critic providing constant running commentary from the side.

I’m reading a novel (The Night Circus) with a sense of wonder at the sheer number of words; how much effort must it take to birth a 300 page baby? My five pages are making me want an epidural.

‘Remember that art is a process. The process is supposed to be fun. For our purposes, ‘the journey is always the only arrival’ may be interpreted to mean that our creative work is actually our creativity itself at play in the field of time. At the heart of this play is the mystery of joy.’ p.154

Oh to rediscover that play. Three weeks to go.

Week Eight: Recovering a Sense of Stength

So, I’m back. Phew that took a while. What’s happened in the intervening weeks? Well, obviously, I have fallen behind with the Artist’s Way. I directed an evening of six ‘lost’ Ayckbourn plays, found nestling within the Alan Ayckbourn Archive. For anyone who thinks they know AA’s work, this had way more Dracula, Cluedo, sawing ladies in half and pyrotechnics than you might expect and much fewer frustrated middle class couples (one, to be precise.)

It’s been over six months since I directed a piece, nearly the longest hiatus since I directed my first show aged 18. It was really great being in that process again. I found the logistics involved hugely stressful (until my boss pointed out that as director I didn’t have to do all of those things and appointed someone infinitely more capable to do them for me –  to him for the guidance and her for doing it all – many thanks!) But the actual process, slowly moving rough sketch to full and detailed final show, was a delight. The student cast were wonderful, if pathologically incapable of diary-management, the scripts are brilliantly put together, the creative team excelled, and it was one of those lovely moments of sitting in the audience, knowing that all around you people are experiencing the emotions which you hoped that they would. In this case, the main sign of success was that they were laughing. It felt really good to sit amongst a guffawing audience knowing I’d contributed to getting that reaction. A colleague, on leaving the theatre remarked that it had been a long time since he had seen something which had the sole goal of making him laugh. A regular diet of it would become sickening but the occasional evening of collective laughing has to be good for the soul.

Plus I started my new job at Freedom Studios in Bradford, which has an amazing office; it looks like an expensive hair salon (embossed black-velvety wallpaper, Bansky-esque mural and glass tables). They have done some remarkable projects and they (or, rather, now – we) are planning some even more remarkable ones, both in artistic vision but also the desire for the shows to make a real difference to the communities experiencing them. More news to come.

So those two things together have kept me very busy, and, unsurprisingly brought up some stuff. Literally, in the case of the other day. Although that may have been food poisoning.

Having such a clear fresh start with the new job, sent me thinking back over the past, and how I got here. I realised I still have a lots of baggage around past creative collaborations which went septic. As ever, Julia is right in sync:

‘As mental-health experts are quick to point out, in order to move through loss and beyond it, we must acknowledge it and share it. Because artistic losses are seldom openly acknowledged or mourned, they become artistic scar tissue that blocks artistic growth. . .  We must remember that our artist is a child and that what we can handle intellectually far outstrips what we can handle emotionally.’ P 129.

So how do we help our artist-child handle all this stuff?

‘The trick is to metabolize pain as energy. The key to doing that is to know, to trust, and to act as if a silver lining exists if you are only willing to look at the work differently or to walk through a different door, one that you may have balked at.’135

We are back to trusting the Universe again. Feels like it’s two steps forward and one step back for me on that currently. But when I look at the amazing opportunities emerging I just need to keep stepping forward.

I used to invest a huge amount of time imagining a different Tom who had made different choices. He was amazing (he had really good teeth) and excelled at all the things I struggled with. Eventually the disparity between Super-Tom and me became so acute that dwelling on his successes was a self-harming compulsion, like having a sore tooth (which, of course, He would never have had) and being compelled to poke it all the time. Finally I forced myself to imagine, in glorious Technicolor, Super-Tom falling under a bus.

This week, while out for a run, I rediscovered Super-Tom and started adding new bits to his biography, new ways that his life had gone differently from mine. By the end of the run I felt terrible and I was shocked to have fallen back into that old pattern. I started chanting as soon as I got back and imagined Super-Tom being electrocuted by a falling power-line. That seems to have sorted it for now.

The point about Super-Tom is that he is impossibly perfect. When I have a bad day, anything less than that perfection equals failure. And the enormity of the gulf between Him and me acts to scare me off from even trying to move towards improving.

‘Blocked creatives like to think they are looking at changing their whole life in one fell swoop. This form of grandiosity is very often its own undoing. By setting the jumps too high and making the price tag too great, the recovering artist sets defeat in motion. . . .

Rather than take a scary baby step towards our dreams, we rush to the edge of the cliff and then stand there, quaking, saying, ‘I can’t leap. I can’t. I can’t. . . .’

No one is asking you to leap. That’s just drama, and, for the purposes of creative recovery, drama belongs on the page or on the canvas or in the clay or in the acting class or in the act of creativity, however small.’ P. 142

And of course, the consequence of that perfectionism is procrastination. Which, let’s be honest, is why this post is so late.

The solution to this is committing to the process, whatever the process may be, rather than the product. It could be the process of Artistic Recovery, of therapy, of chanting and changing yourself (your ‘human revolution’), or of sitting down to paint a picture, or of working on a show. One of my strengths as I director, I feel, is that I am able to trust the process; that I am the person in the room who is okay with the fact that in week one the rehearsal doesn’t look like the finished show, who doesn’t need to know where everyone is standing on the stage straight away, who is happy to explore different ways of playing a scene rather than rushing straight for the perfect answer. In that sense, I don’t really do anything a lay person would recognise as ‘directing’ until the final week. The rest of the time my function is to inspire others to be okay with uncertainty, and to trust to the process to lead us to our destination. In that sense I could do with ‘directing’ my life less and seeing it more as those early weeks, and get better at not rushing to get to the ending.

‘We like to focus on having learned a skill or having made an artwork. This attention to final form ignores the fact that creativity lies not in the done but in doing.

‘I am writing a screenplay’ is infinitely more interesting to the soul than ‘I have written a screenplay,’ which pleases the ego’. . .

‘Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can feel foolish or barren.’ P. 139

There’s a similar Buddhist concept (after eight weeks – is that a surprise, dear reader?); focusing on the causes not the effects. We set a determination to achieve a certain goal by a certain date and then we chant to achieve that goal, with the spirit to change whatever in ourselves needs to change to get us there, and then we take action. The trick, at the end of each day, is not to ask ourselves, ‘Did I get there?’ because then we feel a failure every time we haven’t fully achieved a goal. Rather, we ask ‘Did I make causes today to get there?’ and with that in mind every day can be a success. ‘Did I apply for that job? Did I make that phone call? Did I read that play? Well then I am doing all I can, and the Universe will do the rest.’ That’s what Faith is in my world. Difficult to do, but still simple; set a goal, take baby steps, and don’t beat yourself up in the meantime.

‘The grace to be a beginner is always the best prayer for an artist. The beginner’s humility and openness lead to exploration. Exploration leads to accomplishment. All of it begins at the beginning, with the first small and scary step.’ P. 140

Or, as my mentor puts it:

‘The Daishonin cites the Contemplation on the Mind-Ground Sutra, which states: “If you want to understand what results will be manifested in the future, look at the causes that exist in the present” (WND-1, 279). Those who take action based on a firm determination have already created the cause for victory, no matter what their present situation may be.’ Daisaku Ikeda, NL 8551CY

As for today? I’ve made the cause by writing this, so now I’m off to bed.

P.S. Remember how I promised I’d post some fiction? Guess what, I procrastinated. Half written. . .

Inspiring Things in My Room: 6 Alethiometer

Still struggling to catch up with myself on the Artist’s Way (nearly finished week 8!) But have just directed a stonking gurt show, so probably I’m allowed. Have an inspiring, or possibly cautionary, object instead.

His Dark Materials holds a special place in my heart. Actually, to be honest, quite a painful one, but significant.

Before I met my Buddhist practice, I used the I Ching a lot. For those of you who haven’t come across it, it’s an ancient Chinese form of divination. You ask it what will happen if you take a particular action then you toss some coins, or fiddle with special yarrow sticks (my preferred method ‘cos I was hard core) and it tells you the result of that action by coming up with a pictogram that refers to lines of text in the big book. You can have thousands of different combinations.

The first night I ever used it I got a spooky feeling in the accuracy of its answers, like someone was watching me over my shoulder. Proper goose bumpy.

I can’t remember those early answers, but I do remember getting addicted. I fell into the trap of thinking that there was one perfect way of doing everything (my misinterpretation of the Tao, or Way) and that if I could just get myself into this magical groove, everything would be wonderful forever. As a result I checked it all the time, before going out to a party, before starting a project. The first result of which I have a clear memory was something along the lines of ‘The foolish boy asks too many questions,’ which shut me up for a bit, though not forever.

And yes, looking back, plenty of the messages were too vague to be applied to my life; others could just have been wishful thinking on my part. I can’t say for a fact that anything supernatural was taking place. What follows might be destiny taking its course. Or a tragedy of my own superstitious making.

Because, after a few years of this, I found myself living with my first real girlfriend. Things had been going great, magically in fact, in a way I had almost begun to doubt would ever happen for me. But after a joyful two years the first cracks were showing. Then suddenly I met someone and found myself head over heels. This new young woman was giving me very little encouragement but the fact I was infatuated made me question my current relationship.

So, of course, I asked the I Ching about it, hoping it would encourage me to stay put and ignore the infatuation. ‘The situation bodes disaster, but there is nothing to do but wait’ came the blunt reply. ‘The Leg of the Bed is Split’ was the image, implying that one had to keep pulling at that split, ‘until it reaches even those very close to himself. One has a shaky foundation in one’s personal life.’

I couldn’t believe it. So I asked again (generally a rude thing to do, whether it be to a wise person or a bunch of sticks.) How could I leave her? ‘Tears in floods, sighing & lamenting but bitter regret serves us in good stead. Good fortune will come from this grief.’

I wrote all this down in my I Ching journal.

That night my girlfriend came home. We had dinner. I watched TV for a bit and she went through to read in the bedroom. She came back in to the lounge in tears. She had read the journal.

That night we both sat in different rooms; I was on the couch (which seemed fair enough.) And we both wept. I finally went through and cried in her arms for a bit. I couldn’t find a way to explain that I wasn’t crying because of what we were losing in that moment. I was crying for what we had already lost, for what had ebbed away in the months leading up to that moment, for that which the I Ching had reflected, spiritually or randomly, back at me, but which I had been unwilling to face.

I went away to stay with my folks for a week. While I was there I started to read the Northern Lights Trilogy. When I came back I was on to the final book. And she, along with all of her stuff, was gone. And I sat on what had been our bed, and I read the last book, that deals with two lovers doomed to be separated, that talks of forging our own path, which features the I Ching heavily. And in the world of the heroic, self-determining heroine, Lyra, the I Ching takes the form of an Aleithiometer, the teller of truth.

Some months later I asked the I Ching (because of course, not even this turn of events could fully break my addiction), what should I do to address the deep sense of absence in my life? I had started chanting by this point, but was unconvinced and shopping around, trying anything that would help. ‘Seeing the Truth: The ablution has been made, but not yet the offering.’ Meaning that the ritual was being observed but not yet the full deep commitment one makes in joining a group of believers. I decided to give it a punt.

Well, you know the rest.

I haven’t used the I Ching since. There are times, more often a crisis of the heart rather than work trouble, where I itch to throw the stalks again (I sold them years ago but there are some very detailed simulations on line.) But what it now represents to me is the act of looking for an answer outside myself, asking some external force to tell me what to do. And actually what I need to develop, in my chanting, in my art, is my ability to listen to my self. For as the founder of my form of Buddhism says, ‘Never seek the Gohonzon (the embodiment of the infinite potential inherent in life) outside yourself.’

And, as ever, I’ll keep you posted on how that’s going.


Inspiring Things in My Room: 5 Make Your Own Path

You may have noticed that I am seriously off-kilter in my weeks. I am still doing the pages, and I feel like I am really living the Artist’s Way; I am working full time on my evening of short Ayckbourn plays and loving the process of being in the room, and realising that I love having other people deal with all of the stuff outside the room for me. But I am struggling with Artists Dates (and real ones, possibly a topic for another time) and the tasks. So I’m in mid-week 8 and probably will be until next Sunday, given that I am working twelve hour days much of the week. So you get a little one of these instead.

This hangs above my bed:

Directors often get obsessed with emphasis. Sentences like ‘I didn’t say she stole the money’ can mean entirely different things when a different word is stressed:

I didn’t say she stole the money. (Jeff said it.)

I didn’t say she stole the money.

I didn’t say she stole the money. (But she did.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (But someone did steal it.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (It was resting in her account.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (She stole some other money.)

I didn’t say she stole the money. (She stole my monkey. And I want it back.)

So when I first received this beautiful print from a wonderful friend, I immediately pictured a man with a shovel refusing to help someone struggling with their home repair, ‘Make your own path.’

It is, of course, a beautiful exhortation (printed on an old map, in case the photo isn’t very clear) to live our own lives fully.

It reminds me of this quote:

‘There is no such thing as a whole life of smooth sailing. Therefore, you do yourself a favor by taking on difficult challenges, forging and strengthening yourself in your youth, while you’re healthy and strong. I hope you can see all difficulties as the material that will enable you to develop a big heart and become people of depth and substance.

Try to be as active as possible. Just by being young, you possess a treasure more valuable than power or fame. To be young is to have hope, passion and freedom. Your whole life lies ahead of you, brimming with possibilities.

Rather than a life of blank pages, it’s better to live a life crammed full of memories of struggles and wonderfully varied experiences. Not to make waves, not to leave behind any history, but just to grow old and die, is a sad way to live.

Do not wait! While still in your youth, you can become the main actors in the human drama unfolding around you, the shapers of history. Even if you feel powerless, that it is difficult to believe in yourself, please try not to be easily swayed by the views of others, and hold true to what you know is right. Try to believe in yourself.’

Daisaku Ikeda

And if that’s not the spirit of the Artist’s Way I don’t know what is.

By the way, youth in Buddhism is a spirit of hope and possibility, not necessarily literally being young. I have to remind myself of this when things like this strike terror into my heart. Hopefully see you next week.

Week Seven: Recovering a Sense of Connection

For those of you who have missed the story so far, I came home to York to lick financial and emotional wounds after over a decade of work as a professional theatre director. Having made the decision to move back to the town where I grew up with no real idea what I would do there, I got a job at the University of York.

The job is Comedy Outreach Officer, the self-fulfilling job title (I tell it to people and they laugh at me.) It is also COO for short. Two gags, one job title. The job is part-time, on a 16-month contract, and involves inspiring young people to consider coming to University using material found in the Alan Ayckbourn Archive. The job is very rewarding; I love working with young people, especially those from less privileged backgrounds. The University is also a fantastic environment to work in and I’m proud to be part of the Theatre, Film and Television Department; it allows me to gently explore the possibilities of further study and a career in academia. I am also learning a huge amount about how to structure plays from studying AA’s work. Being part-time, it has also allowed me the space to explore my own creativity, through doing the Artist’s Way and the money enables me to keep my head above water. Finally, it provides me with an excuse to stage short Ayckbourn plays in the amazing theatre there with the students (22nd and 23rd June if you happen to be passing through.)

I am also loving York. It has grown more cosmopolitan, with lots of indie cafes and art venues springing up. There is also something very profound about practising Buddhism here; half my life I lived in York, half my life I lived in London, where I met the practice. Now the two halves have met. And Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo sounds amazing with a Yorkshire accent. So I’m in no rush to leave.

Six months in, however, and the old doubts started to come back. Namely, while I have been doing a lot of theatre work of one kind and another my last show with professionals was a while ago. While COO provides a respite and a chance for reflection, my CV will be no better at the end of it than it was at the beginning. My inner critic whispers ‘failure’ in my ear and the prospect of rebuilding my professional career seems to be ever receding. I often feel very far away from my old life in London and the feeling that I was on a clear trajectory towards West End success.

All of which makes the fact that now, in addition to being Comedy Outreach Officer, I am also Associate Director of Freedom Studios all the more remarkable. Freedom Studios evolved out of the legendary political theatre company Red Ladder and is dedicated to making work for, and with, the diverse communities of Yorkshire, especially those in its home of Bradford.

The post is part-time, pays enough that by this time next year (if I’m very careful) I will be in a much better place financially, and is a purely creative position; I will be spending all of my time for them planning and delivering artistic work, as part of a small and very passionate team.

In the interview they asked me, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ I replied, honestly. ‘I have no idea. I used to know. Now I don’t. So I’m allowing myself 12 weeks of not knowing, a rigorously defined period of uncertainty and doubt, while I do this Artist’s Way Course.’ When I was offered the job, they told me it was that honesty which swung it for me. Talk about synchronity. The Universe, in the midst of my unknowing, as given me the chance to make meaningful theatre with people to whom it might make a real difference, as part of a unique theatre company. At the same time, I get to continue to work with other young people via the Uni and dip my toe into a possible future in academia. And all this while remaining routed in Yorkshire, and fulfilling my responsibility as young men’s Chapter Leader. If I had been asked to sketch a perfect outcome of my decision to move home I wouldn’t have dared to dream of this.

Julia this week talks about listening to our inner creativity. ‘When we get something down, there is no strain. We’re not doing; we’re getting. Someone or something else is doing the doing. Instead of reaching for inventions, we are engaged in listening.’ I’m certainly listening differently to my own thoughts and feelings at the moment and within that the creativity is beginning to bubble up. ‘We deny that in order to do something well we must first be willing to do it badly.’ P. 121. (Which I guess applied to dating as much as it does creativity.) On the creative side, though, this struck me in light of my closing comments last week: ‘Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. . . Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.’ P.117. With this in mind next week I’m going to post some fiction, even if short. Or crappy.

I don’t normally do reviews here, but I saw three pieces of theatre this week and they filled me with hope. Firstly, I saw an evening of short pieces or extracts at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Matchmakers, where writers and directors are paired up to play together and see what happens. I was struck that there are places to play and take risks, like, in the case of one group, throwing out the script and making their piece entirely wordless. Secondly, I was daunted to discover that Scarberia at the Theatre Royal York was 1 hour 50 straight through, no interval. I nearly turned around and went home. I’m so glad I didn’t because the result, exploring the tangential relationship between two sets of 16 year old friends from Scarborough, Canada and Scarborough, Yorkshire. The result was a joy, largely down to great writing and beautifully vulnerable acting. Finally (and there is a family bias here) I saw Isango’s remarkable production of Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, where there was an audible inhalation from the Hackney audience when a character, without shame or equivocation, said the word ‘Socialism.’ In a world where ‘The Great Money Trick’ is being played with increasingly ferocity, raising the possibility of an alternative to free-market capitalism still seems like the breaking of a major taboo. Whether the S word seems like the solution to you or not, surely it’s time to allow ourselves to talk of other ways of doing things without embarrassment? Let’s at least put all the options back on the table and dare to dream of a better world, and even start to take baby steps towards it. After all, as I’m learning on this journey: without hope, there is no hope.

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.