Know the enemy, know yourself, wrote Sun Tzu in his classic The Art of War, and your victory will be certain. For anyone who has yet to reach their full potential creatively and who struggles to find a path to realize their most authentic desires and goals, the enemy and the self are one in the same.
In Steven Pressfield's (author of Legend Of Baggar Vance) book, The War Of Art, he makes the compelling case that what holds most of us back from reaching our true potential is our own inner resistance to stepping up and doing the work required to reach our goals. Pressfield calls resistance the enemy of creativity. In Pressfield's words, "Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the un-lived life within us. Between the two stands resistance."
Resistance is the voice inside us that tells us we shouldn't even try to pursue our dreams because we're not good enough. Resistance is the urge to just relax and watch TV instead of writing new songs or making that important phone call we've been putting off. Resistance is the voice inside that says we probably wouldn't make it even if we tried so we mine as well just enjoy ourselves and go get drunk instead. Basically, resistance is the part of you that is holding you back.
According to Pressfield the more important something is to our evolution as humans, the more resistance we have around it. That's why we feel so much resistance. If it meant nothing to us, we wouldn't feel anything. There would be no resistance. This rings true in my own experience. I have no resistance to putting out a new product for my website or entering into a new business deal. But when it comes time to play a new song for someone, or send my music to an important contact, I can feel the resistance come up. It's more important to me and I'm much more invested in my art emotionally, so there's a resistance to moving forward sometimes, even though I love writing and playing music.
Resistance and wanting to be a star
Pressfield writes, "Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of resistance. They're the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a byproduct of work. The professional concentrates on the work, and allows success to come or not come, whatever they like."
When you're overly focused on pursuing success it can be very distracting to the creative process. This has probably been one of the biggest hurdles for me personally, at times success has seemed and felt very elusive and I go through periods of questioning what is the point of it all. Other times I think maybe if I dressed this way or wrote this type of song, success would be forthcoming. Approaching it from either angle is a distraction that takes me further away from the creative process of simply writing the best music I'm capable of.
Resistance And Procrastination
Procrastination, Pressfield claims, is the most common form of resistance because it's the easiest to rationalize. Pressfield states, " We don't tell ourselves, I'm never going to write my symphony. Instead we say, I am going to write my symphony, I'm just going to start tomorrow." This form of resistance is particularly insidious because it can become a lifelong habbit. How many people, I wonder, go through their entire lives putting off what they know they should be doing deep down simply due to their habit of procrastination.
In about two weeks, I'm headed to LA to record ten new songs. In the days leading up to my trip, I've been busy getting ready; making demos of the songs, re-writing lyrics, practing the songs and so on. But I have to admit, I occassionally, for no good reason, procrastinate. I tell myself, I can wait to work on my songs until tomorrow, there's a movie I want to check out. Or, I think I've done enough today, I'll put in twice the hours tomorrow. I find the best way to overcome these urges is to make daily to do lists that I hold myself accountable to. If I have a clear idea of what I need to accomplish each day it's much more easy to stick to my goals and avoid procrastinating.
Resistance Is Fear Disguised As Rationalization
Resistance, at the end of the day, is simply fear. It's the fear we have about not being able to reach our goals. Or it's the fear we have about not being good enough. Or the fear of not being able to pay our bills if we pursue our true calling. However, most of us are too proud to admit and own our fears so we rationalize them through stories and excuses we tell ourselves.
According to Pressfield the solution to resistance is what he calls, "going pro". By this he doesn't mean pro as in a professional, like a doctor or lawyer. Pressfield is refering instead to a level of commitment and determination that is beyond that of the amateur. Pressfield writes, "The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps. To the amateur the game is his avocation. To the professional it's his vocation. The amateur plays part-time, the professional full time. The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. "
Becoming a pro is about developing habits that will lead to greater success over time. As opposed to just writing when inspiration strikes, it's about writing every day so that when inspiration does strike you'll be ready to capture it. As opposed to just waiting for lucky breaks to happen, it's about working every day so that you'll see opportunities when they do come along and be able to capitalize on them.
So many artists and musicians I know obsess about becoming successful before they even produce great work. Going pro is about developing the habits that will lead to writing your great masterpiece. Going pro is about developing a routine. It's about setting aside time, every day, to create the best music, art or literature you can create.
Sam Beam, aka, Iron And Wine, had a great quote about music and having a strong work ethic, he said, "If you treat it (music) like a job. They'll pay you like it's a job".
In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. Named by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields, though has existed for thousands of years in other guises, notably in some eastern religions.
One of the great things about writing and performing music is the potential to reach these sorts of "flow" or "zone" states. When we're fully immersed in activities like music, dance, surfing and even work that is extremely engaging, we tend to be so focused on what we're doing that we enter a state known as "flow" where our worries, repetitive thoughts and stress disappear while we're engaged in what we're doing.
When you're lost in the moment, trying to capture a new song that you're writing, it's very hard to simultaneously be worried about other things. While you're on stage in the middle of a song, while the crowd is singing and dancing along, it's pretty hard to do that and think about the bills you have to pay or the problems you're having at home, at the same time.
For the last few years I've been heavily influenced by writers like Eckhart Tolle, Allan Watts and Ram Dass. Although they all express it in slightly different ways, these and many other authors all point to the same idea, that much of our suffering in life comes with overly identifying with our egos. We all have a constant stream of thoughts running through our head at any given time, some of it is positive, some of it is negative, but none of it is really who we are in our essence. When we overly identify with the thoughts we think we tend to get lost in our own drama. Of course, this doesn't always leads to suffering, but when we experience stress and difficult events, it's easy to get lost in our thoughts and not see the forest from the trees.
I look at thinking as a very useful problem solving tool. We all encounter challenges and obstacles as we move through life and we need the analytical, thinking part of our brain to assist us in working through these challenges. Take a goal like pursuing a career in music, we need to be able to think our way to logical choices that will help us move forward. We need to be able to sort through the myriad of choices we have in front of us and arrive at the choices that will help us most effectively get to where we're trying to go. It's when we get "lost in thought" that we tend to have problems. Or when we develop negative thought patterns and get stuck there.
Meditation, like flow states, is a useful tool for loosening the grip on our thoughts and over identification with our thoughts. Anyone who has tried to "quiet the mind" through meditation can attest to just how difficult this actually is. The mind thinks. It's simply what it does. But by meditating you can learn to develop an awareness of the thinking self and see it for what it is, a process that although is a part of you, is certainly not all fo you. This is a very subtle but profound realization, one that in my own experience you need to have over and over to really "get". Our thinking minds are extremely powerful and in my own experience I tend to fall back in its grasp over and over. But through things like meditation and "flow states" I'm able to loosen the grasp of the mind over time.
Although the meditative state and the flow state are different, they're similar in that they both tend to focus the mind and make it more difficult to stay in negative or "stressed out" states while we're engaged in either activity. So why meditate and engage in activities that lead to more flow states? Well, simply to lead happier more fulfilling lives. According to Wikipedia, "Flow is an innately positive experience; it is known to "produce intense feelings of enjoyment". An experience that is so enjoyable should lead to positive affect and happiness in the long run. "
The flow state has also been documented to improve the performance of musicians while simultaneously decreasing their heart rate and blood pressure. In other words, while musicians relax and enter into more of a flow state, their performance improves. Here's another quote from Wikipedia:
"Musicians, especially improvisational soloists may experience a similar state of mind while playing their instrument. Research has shown that performers in a flow state have a heightened quality of performance as opposed to when they are not in a flow state. In a study performed with professional classical pianists who played piano pieces several times to induce a flow state, a significant relationship was found between the flow state of the pianist and the pianist’s heart rate, blood pressure, and major facial muscles. As the pianist entered the flow state, heart rate and blood pressure decreased and the major facial muscles relaxed. This study further emphasized that flow is a state of effortless attention. In spite of the effortless attention and overall relaxation of the body, the performance of the pianist during the flow state improved. "
A few weeks ago I wrote an article about "following your head vs. following your heart". It's a similiar concept. We need the analytical, thinking parts of ourselves to navigate our way through life in the same way we need our egos and sense of self to make sense of our lives. The problem is when we mistake that part of ourselves for who we truly are.
More about the "Flow" state:
Ted Talk on the "Flow" state:
Want more articles like this one? Be sure to sign up for my newsletter and I'll notify you when I publish new articles, videos and music.
The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.