Saturday, November 22, 2008
A lot of people think art is all about inspiration. They think people who accomplish great things are carried there on a magical cloud of divine intervention. It’s not true. Inspiration is overrated. “I always thought inspiration was for amateurs,” says eminent visual artist Chuck Close, “the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Inspiration is the refuge of the undisciplined. Waiting around on the sidelines for inspiration to suddenly strike is a formula for failure.
Of course inspiration is real and powerful and important, but it does not occur in a vacuum. Before inspiration visits you, three preliminary stages must be crossed. First comes love, then comes thought, then comes hard work. What use is gasoline if you don’t have a car to burn it in? Let’s build the car, then look for a gas station.
The first step is love. Only do what you love. Don’t confuse this with enslavement to base appetites or superficial desires. Instead, give the soul what it is asking for. “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell told his students, and don’t let anyone or anything throw you off the beam. Following your bliss changes you. And it opens doors you didn’t even know were there. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna told Arjuna, “you become what you love.” In other words, love is a particularly effective form of focused consciousness. Thoughts have transformational power.
It’s natural for our thoughts to swirl incessantly around the things we care deeply about. That’s normal. That’s why it’s important to care about the right things – true things, real things. When we do, our thoughts become intentions and affirmations and they begin to manifest in the material world. The universe has no choice but to respond to powerfully focused conscious intentions. Thoughts may not manifest in the way you think they will, but they will manifest. “All that we are is the result of what we have thought,” said the Buddha in the Dhamapada, “our life is a product of our mind.” It is a grave error to underestimate the capacity of consciousness to construct reality. “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal,” said Thomas Jefferson, “and nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” For Henry Ford it was this simple: “If you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
From thoughts come actions. Actions repeated become habit. And habit constructs character. Our lives are the results of our thoughts and actions. We become what we love, we become what we think, we become what we do. Our choices set into motion complex webs of causation that interface with the lives of countless others and the consciousness of the universe itself – what some people call God. One-pointed love, conscious intention and disciplined action are an unstoppable force. Cultivating the habit of hard work is the single most important element of success in any endeavor. “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” said Thomas Edison. Squeamish about work? Then don’t complain about the gulf between you and your dreams.
Stop looking for the magic formula or the right self-help book. You’ve read enough. You’ve prayed enough. You’ve thought enough. Now get to work. “Every habit and faculty is preserved and increased by its corresponding actions,” said Epictetus in the first century, “the habit of walking makes us better walkers, regular running makes us better runners.” Want to write better songs? Write songs everyday. Want a better gig? You know what to do. Want to break the cycle of addiction? Act like a sober person. Want to overcome fear and cultivate compassion? Ask yourself, what would a courageous, compassionate person do, and then do that. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Aristotle, Judaism and Confucianism all make this point loud and clear: action precedes internal transformation. Fake it till you make it. Act as if. Act as if you were talented, fabulous, gifted, creative, powerful. It’s one of life’s most delicious paradoxes. Yes, thoughts and intentions give rise to actions and behaviors. But actions and behaviors also shape consciousness. It’s a never-ending feedback loop. Thoughts give rise to actions and behaviors in turn transform consciousness. That’s how we become what we do.
And finally, when we fully engage in a life of action, that’s when the inspiration hits. Inspiration can never be the goal. Inspiration just happens when we show the universe that we are willing to do our part. We pay our dues. We show up prepared. We do our homework and learn our craft. We demonstrate our readiness in our everyday actions. Writers write, singers sing, lovers love, painters paint, creators create. And in the abundance of our fully-realized commitment, miracles happen. “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” said Edison. Stop searching the sky for that bolt of lightning. Keep your eyes on the work in front of you. Let the universe make miracles through the work of your own hands. In the end there’s only one thing that delivers us to the life we long for and so richly deserve: hard work.