tomwrightdreamer

Currently all about me doing the 12-week Artist's Way Course (See First Post for Details.)

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.

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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 http://mdbenoit.com/rtg.htm. 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.

Shamans

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.

Week Three: Recovering a Sense of Power

Sorry for late posting! Week 3 actually finished last Monday, but life got hectic.

Weekly Review

1)    Did you do the morning pages?

Yes I did. Yay me! I’m actually starting to look forward to them, rather than being a chore and I feel lighter after them. My chanting is also clearer and more focused.  (Also, top tip – finding it hard to fill three pages of note book? Get a smaller note book.)

2)    Did you go on an Artist’s Date?

Did I ever! I spent the weekend at a healing retreat. I might explain the whole process in a later blog. For now, it involves turning unresolved stuff into metaphors and allowing these to be resolved in a dream-like story. A lot came up for me; one particularly potent image was of a pool of cool water, the sunlight glinting on it. Once one of the stones by the pool was removed the water began to flow out and as it did, more water flowed in from the other side, so that there was a steady stream of water which never ran dry. This felt like my creativity; there’s unlimited quantities of it, the only question being the speed at which I allow it to flow.

This work also involved doing a lot of drawing of the images, creating fantasy maps of how the image-world was forming which I might photo for you at some point. I did art GCSE and made a fairly pleasing portfolio of work and then haven’t really picked up a crayon/2B/paintbrush since. Felt really good.

3)    Anything else come up?

Well. . .

Anger

‘Anger is meant to be acted upon. It is not meant to be acted out. Anger points the direction. We are meant to use anger as fuel to take the actions we need to move where our anger point us.’p.62

Julia talks about anger being a powerful indicator of the areas in our life that need addressing or the actions we need to take.

This is very similar to the Buddhist concept of the ten worlds. There are ten worlds, or states of life; Hell (agh!/suffering), Hunger (nom nom nom/desire), Animality (ug/short-term, self-centred instinct), Anger (grrrr/the sense of superiority), Tranquillity (ahhh), Rapture (mmmm!), Learning (ooh), Realisation (a-ha!), Bodhisattva (aww/compassion) and Buddhahood (ultimate wisdom, courage and compassion. Not sure what sound that one has. Probably chanting-sounding.)

During the course of a day we can flit from one state to another a hundred times, although we might have one state which is most common, sort of our default setting. Each of these worlds has positive and negative aspects (apart from Buddhahood which is ace-ness incarnate.) For example, compassion is great but if you are supporting others so much that you suffer yourself it ultimately has a negative effect. On the other hand, anger can feel pretty unpleasant, and be very destructive, or it can motivate you to make changes, to stand up and challenge those things in yourself or your environment which are unacceptable.

This week some old anger resurfaced about a particular crazymaker who exposed me to some very powerful and protracted abuse, to the extent that it didn’t so much make my creativity dry up as made me not even want to create. I went back to an exercise from week 1 and wrote this person a letter (never to be sent.) I discovered a number of things.

First, I was actually, in my heart, grateful for the experience. It came along at a time that I was doubting my abilities both as an artist, and as a human being able to cope with the world. I wanted easy and the universe gave me a challenge tailor-made to strike all my weak spots. My first encounters with this crazymaker made me want to run away. But as the bullying went on I found (with support from my friends, Buddhist practice and some therapy) that I was infinitely stronger than I had believed. Once I realised I that, the crazymaker could make my life difficult but couldn’t actually hurt me anymore, I was able to leave, not running away from fear, but walking away from an abusive relationship with wisdom and self-compassion. And overall the experience has made me a stronger, and happier person.

Next I realised that this person must have been suffering terribly. This in turn made me realise I was no longer angry with the person (I pitied them, which is still pretty disrespectful, but I’ll work on that). But I was still angry at their behaviour.

Given that this person is no longer in my environment, what do I do with this residual anger? The best I’ve got at the moment is the following:

1)    Learn to protect my creative work from crazymakers.

2)    Constantly check that I’m not becoming one myself.

3)    Develop ways of working which protect my colleagues and collaborators from similar abuse in the future.

Thoughts on how to do those, gratefully received!

Synchronicity

I’ve spoken before about Julia’s idea that trusting God to take care of your creativity, weakens your inner critic and lets the creativity flow. But we also need food on the table and opportunities to make work. Here she talks about the way in which the universe will support those who make, if not leaps, at least gentle baby steps of faith in their creativity. For the hard-core rationalists amongst you this might be a harder pill to swallow, but as with the God concept, even if it’s a placebo it may be a powerful one.

This chimes so strongly with the Buddhist philosophy of the oneness of self and environment (the idea that changing the karmic blocks in our hearts manifests an external change in our world) that Julia even uses one of my mentor, Daisaku Ikeda’s favourite quotes:

‘The moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too.

All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have believed would have come his way. Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.’ P. 66

(The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, W. H. Murray riffing on a Goethe quote.)

This week I have experienced a lot of synchronicity, but not a fun kind. Events have come up to challenge certain weak spots. Now I’m on the look out for what Julia talks about here, the universe offering support for the next steps.

I have seen a lot of deep personal change over the last few years, remarkably so. The universe has now given me a warm, supportive environment in which to do this course. But I want more, the conspicuous way forward, that feeling of the universe rewarding brave leaps with significant breakthroughs. Here’s hoping. . .

Criticism

The next sections deal with Shame and Criticism.

A few years ago I was in a workshop with Scott Williams, one of the top teachers of the Meisner Technique http://www.impulsecompany.co.uk/who_we_are.html in the country. He took great impish-delight in saying shocking things to the group, ‘killing our sacred cows.’ One was, ‘When someone you know comes to see your work, thank them sincerely for coming and then talk to them about the weather. If you go and see someone else’s work the correct response, regardless of how good the show was, is, ‘Well done,’ then talk about the weather. You don’t know anything about how, why and by whom the decisions in the production where made. If you praise a great moment the actor may become self-conscious the next time they play it. If you damn the whole production, they still have to go on and perform it each night. But, whatever the result, there’s one thing you can know for sure. That they worked really hard. So give them, ‘Well done,’ praise the effort and leave the rest alone.’

I was furious. I stomped about a bit muttering about the duty of the artist to be open to any source of feedback which might improve the work. And then slowly, begrudgingly I admitted to himself that he was right. I take input from everyone involved in the show throughout the process. But once it’s open; what are we going to do if an audience member doesn’t like the set?

So I stopped reading reviews. I wanted them to be good for ticket sales, but I didn’t read them. Friends and relatives came and wanted to dissect the pieces with me at length and I would ask them how they were doing. I know this sounds amazingly arrogant. In theatre, actors can’t see themselves act. Novelists can’t sit there as their readers read the book. But, for a director, we know if our work works, because we sit amongst the audience and can feel what they feel; we are the audience. If the electricity is sparking in the room you can feel their hair raising, feel them holding their breath. If they’re bored you sigh in unison with them. The skill is in knowing how to address the bits which don’t work and that is the struggle for us all, because unpicking whatever it is will involve  a great deal of insight into the play, production, and the temperament of the creatives involved. Which is information you have but most audience members won’t. Chances are they will tell you what they would have done to make it more like their ideal production, rather than what you should do to make it yours. There are some, sympathetic, insightful and experienced people who can do that but it requires both immense technical knowledge and a great generosity of spirit. Which is pretty rare.

Or maybe I am being arrogant. If I am, I’m pretty sure, by then end of week 3, that the Morning Pages will tell me.

And now, I’ve just read chapter 4 and apparently this week I am not allowed to read. Anything. Not quite sure how that’s going to pan out. . .


Inspiring Things in My Room: 3 Ask-Me-Buddha

I know I’ve banged on a lot about Buddhism on this blog so far. It’s not so much that I’m selling it to you, as that, after ten years, this stuff is pretty integral to how I think. So it would be impossible to talk about something as personal as this creativity course without drawing on my practice. I can, however, put this object in to show I’ve kept my sense of religious irony.

In my form of Buddhism we don’t revere figures of the Buddha. The idea is that Buddhahood is a force to be found within all living beings (let me know when I sound like Yoda) so giving it a specific face might make it seem that it’s a quality that Shakyamuni had and which we can’t access. So in general I avoid having Buddha statues around the house.

But this is no ordinary Buddha.

Oh, no.

This is an Ask-Me-Buddha.

You ask him a question, turn him upside down, and where his bum should be is a little window where a Magic 8-Ball style die will bob saying something like, ‘Use the Zen.’ His advice is utterly useless. But whatever problem I take to him he always makes me laugh at about it. Which I guess is pretty damn profound after all.

Inspiring Things in My Room: 2 Happiness

I love this paperweight for the following reasons:

1) It was bought for me by a very dear friend.

2) It was a gift marking the end of a very difficult period of my life where I was profoundly unhappy.

3) There were many external reasons to be unhappy at that time but the internal one was distress at not being where I wanted to be in life. It reminds me of the Buddhist concept that ‘Earthly Desires Are Enlightenment.’ This is the idea that we are always going to want things; that’s being human. (Even having the desire to get rid of all desires, is, itself, a desire. Phew.) The question is; do we use those desires to beat ourselves up? ‘I can’t be happy till I’ve got X, Y, etc.’ Or do we use the desire to help us grow? ‘I’m going to change whatever in me needs to change to achieve X, and I’m going to love every minute of it!’ At that point what we want is sort of irrelevant; we are using the desire to motivate our spiritual growth. And being fulfilled in the meantime.

4) The dear friend in question is a Christian and, while I understand the phrase in the Buddhist terms above, I love that wise stuff is open to all of us to share, regardless.

5) It is one dot short of an ellipsis. Which I am sure is the punchline to a pun I have yet to write.

6) It holds down my papers when it’s windy.

Week Two: Recovering a Sense of Identity

This week I have been ill, having been surrounded by the intensive-germ-incubation-and-distribution-units you Earthlings call ‘Children.’ Still it’s given me time to focus on Artists Waying. So here are my thoughts at the end of week 2.

Weekly Review

1)    How many days this week did you do your morning pages?

Six.

What? I was ill.

2)    Artist Date

See the Inspirational Items posts!

3)    Anything else significant come up?

Funny you should ask:

Going Sane

‘Going sane feels just like going crazy.’ P. 41

Making deep changes are scary; we might not like our pain, fears and doubts, but they are ours; they are familiar. Changing is scary and unfamiliar. But I’ve changed big things before, albeit with great effort, so here goes. . .

This section deals with the inner negative voice, the inner critic. I’ve spent a fair amount of time wrestling mine over the years. For a long time he would tell me I was a failure every time I was less than perfect. Unsurprisingly, I was never perfect, so I heard from him every day, and often that led to me not trying at all, and crawling back under the duvet.

‘Just as a recovering alcoholic must avoid the first drink, the recovering artist must avoid taking the first think.’ P.42

When I was younger people used to say to me, ‘You know your problem, Tom? You think too much.’ And, yes, I did. But that’s constructive criticism. You don’t just go, ‘Oh yes, well, I will start thinking less, then. I’ll start right now. Here goes. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Oh. That was easy.’

So I looked for ways to nudge my thoughts in a more productive direction (through things like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or to dial them down (through meditation or Mindfulness training.) I settled on my Buddhist practice because by chanting to achieve my goals and desires each morning, I was freed up to focus on each of the day’s activities without fretting about the end result. It takes a lot of effort to live like that, as if each thing you are doing is important enough to deserve your full attention, and the chanting certainly helps me bring forth that energy.

I also found therapy to be very useful, in that it enabled me to unpick how the Critic got to be so strong, and why I was so inclined to listen to him. I’m learning to focus on improving myself, rather than perfecting myself. Any day I take a step forward (rather than being perfect) is a win now, and so he’s quieter these days.

But he is still there. So I look forward to seeing how morning pages and the exercises might pipe him down further. Even in week 2, a thought pops up during the day and I think to myself, ‘I wrote this thought down this morning; I don’t have to think it again.’ And off it slides. Early days, but interesting.

Poisonous Playmates and Crazymakers

Reading this section it occurred to me that maybe blogging this process was not a great idea, as it’s a very personal process. Fortunately, so far it feels like a slightly patchy Artist’s Way Group. I’ve received a lot of supportive messages, and also discovered lots of people who’ve already done the course and had great benefits, which has been great. And a big thank you to everyone who’s doing the course in tandem with me!

At various points in my life I’ve had people in my environment who would count as Poisonous Playmates; people who are creatively blocked and would oppose my attempts to free my creativity up. At the moment, however, I am fortunate to be surrounded by support and encouragement.

‘Crazymakers are those personalities that create storm centres. They are often charismati,c frequently charming, highly inventive, and powerfully persuasive. And, for the creative person in their vicinity, they are enormously destructive.’ P. 44

I’ve known people like this, personally and professionally, all my life, but let’s focus on the work front. Now, I’ve only lived one life (that I can remember) and I’ve lived it in theatre. As a result I cannot say that theatre attracts crazymakers any more than any other industry. Before I go further I should be really clear that I know a lot of very sane and lovely theatre makers! But I have met dozens of crazymakers in the industry so it’s worth raising the question.

There’s an annual, and very brilliant, self-organising theatre conference hosted by Improbable Theatre called Devoted and Disgruntled. At it anyone call a session on any burning issues they have. This year someone convened a session called Working With Dickheads and it was hugely popular, so I’m evidently not alone in being effected by this.

I convened a session on the psychological impact of acting, and someone suggested that some people may become actors through a need to feel love, fulfilling some childhood absence. Equally some have suggested that directing might attracts people with a pathological need to control. Certainly, directing in theatre is a great job for someone who gets off on power, as the status difference between actors and directors breeds the potential for extraordinary abuse. I have seen some of this abuse first hand, while I have heard many more horror stories from actor friends. And of course, it’s not just actors and directors; I’ve met troubled (and troubling) people in ever department (although, again, they are always in the minority.)

Through my own psyche-delving I have discovered that one factor behind choosing directing was that I wanted to be responsible for bringing together and maintaining a happy, nurturing family. (Some of the actors I’ve worked with will be sniggering now at quite how badly I’ve failed to do that at times, but that was the intention!)

There is an old theatre joke: ‘There’s a wanker in every company. If you can’t figure out who it is, it’s probably you.’ But again, how do I know that I’m not a crazymaker?

I was once on my first production. Aged 18, the wonderful Jill Adamson, now head of National Association of Youth Theatres (link), then head of Youth Theatre Yorkshire, let me direct a show. I behaved fine until the first night, when sitting amongst an audience watching my work proved too much for me. One of the cast misremembered a line and I took it as a personal slur and blew up at him after the show in front of the rest of the cast. Jill took me off till I calmed down, then I went back and apologised to everyone. I promised myself that I would never behave that like that again.

Through my Buddhist practice I started consciously putting effort into supporting the people around me. I quickly discovered that when I put supporting the emotional needs of the cast first, the productions got better. In the very early days of the Young Vic Young Directors Forum someone posted a question asking directors to suggest the qualities of a good theatre director. I included Empathy and Compassion in my list. I got an amazingly irate response; including one director who said that my list might describe a good person, ‘but has nothing to do with directing.’ He then declared that, ‘Tom represents everything which is wrong with British theatre.’ A few months later I worked with a group of students who had worked with this particular director. I asked them how they had found it. They described their experiences as bullying and, for some of them, as sexual harassment.

I knew another director who deliberately bullied his cast and then said, ‘The work only really starts when the actors are really suffering.’ This was on a children’s Christmas show.

What makes this sort of behaviour so sad is that theatre is, by definition, a collaborative art form, and everyone has come on board with such high hopes. Every actor, designer and director is opening up their work to a paying public. It could be a remarkable team effort, a group of people putting aside personal ego to create something remarkable in an environment of mutual support. But the vulnerability required from communal art making leaves us vulnerable to those who, for whatever inner psychological need, seek to manipulate or dominate.

Seldom, if ever, does anyone speak out. Actors can spend months in soul-destroying jobs waiting for an audition, then when it comes up Spotlight has over a thousand actors who also fit the bill. If, miraculously, they get the job, they want it to be more than just a six-week contract; you want this one to lead to more work. Even with the director who has behaved appallingly. It takes a lot to speak out in the face of an imbalance of power like that. Similarly, directors, pushed for time, might like someone in audition (remember, auditionees are acting the moment they enter the room) and their CVs show they’ve worked with some good people so they hire them, unaware that from the moment the actor steps in the room, they will be driven to manipulate and undermine every other actor. (And again, we are talking a minority of actors who will behave like this, albeit a significant minority.)

I have let people down, failed to protect them from crazymakers, which I deeply regret, but I hope that I have avoided being one myself. I also hope that this process will give me the strength to deal with them in the future, or the wisdom to avoid them!

Scepticism

A few people who have started on this journey with me have expressed a problem with the God-language. Julia seems to be clear that this isn’t necessarily a God who expects you to turn up to a particular Church every Sunday. I think she’s talking about trusting to a force that’s greater than ourselves. Maybe if it makes the process easier for you, you should go through and tippex out every instance of God and replace it with ‘my own higher wisdom,’ ‘my own unconscious creativity,’ ‘life-itself,’ or whatever you feel comfortable with. Special props to Mr Alex Soulsby for suggesting ‘The Creative Energy that Will Eventually be Explained through Neuroscience’ or ‘A certain, beautiful sensation that will never be explained properly, as the human mind simply isn’t designed to understand the human mind.’ On the other hand, God is shorter. . .

Cameron’s argument seems to be that if you get your self-critical voice out of the way, creativity will naturally emerge and, as creativity emerges from within, so will opportunities from without. I like this (not least because I could do with some conspicuous lucky breaks). If it’s not literally true, it seems to chime with the subjective experience of many great artists. So for those of you alienated by the God language, suspecting it’s some sort of spiritual placebo, I say, let’s take the pill. Then in another ten weeks we can debate if and how it worked.