In a recent article that I wrote I talked a lot about being willing to accept whatever shows up in your painting, even if it doesn't match up to your hopes and expectations about what you want it to be. One of my students got back to me and said "Yes, that article was a great reminder about self acceptance but you didn't really talk about how PAINFUL it is when you don't get the outcome that you want. I need to hear more about that part of it."
To get to the heart of that pain we need to ask another question which is "What is it that we are looking for when we are trying so hard for that whiz bang finished product? The painting that in our fantasy is going to be sold for a million bucks or get hung in the SF MOMA? "
Our bottom line motivation for doing anything is that we are trying to get certain needs met. And everyone has the same needs. Needs for love, for security, for connection, to be seen and appreciated and valued. So creating a gorgeous painting that everyone agrees is a masterpiece, that gets us attention and maybe money is an attempt to meet some of those needs . If everybody loves our painting then we translate that into thinking that everyone loves us and if everyone loves us then maybe we can start to feel like we are OK.
Getting what we want makes us feel good, partly because it's just a pleasant, happy thing to get what we want.But of course things are always more complicated than that. Too many times getting what we want becomes symbolic for something else. It becomes much more than simply getting = nice, not getting= less nice.
We attach meaning about who we are to all this getting and not getting and that is where we find ourselves mired in all kinds of sticky, painful trouble. If we get the goodies it becomes proof that we are valuable and loved and that we are worthwhile. We feel blessed, which is defined as "god looking favorably upon us." And if there is such hard core confirmation that are being smiled on by divine providence that must mean we are pretty darned special.
Of course blessedness is on one end of a continuum. In the dictionary the opposite of blessed is cursed, which is not a word that you hear real often these days. But there is another term that speaks to that ancient experience of thinking that we have been cast out of the garden and that word is shame. Shame is the certainty that we are NOT OK. The conviction that we just don't measure up and never will. If we are NOT getting the goodies in life it's all the confirmation that we need to convince ourselves that we are deeply flawed. Shame says to us "No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try , it is never good enough."
It's pretty clear if you have your eyes open at all that everybody is not always having a good time. Difficult, painful things happen to people around us ( and to us) all the time. So we are silently but constantly keeping score. How many blessings today? Where do I measure up in relation to everyone else around me? Does God love me or not right now?
This whole process of evaluation begins when we are children and we are in a position where it's too scary to recognize when our caretakers might be deficient or inept . We need to see them as powerful and omnipotent because that's the only way we can feel any sense of safety at all. It's too bleak and terrifying for children to see grownups as seriously incapable, because that means we are absolutely on our own and nobody can tolerate that when they are 6 years old.
So it's safer to let the less than competent adults off the hook and to think that we are responsible for everything that happens to us. And we continue to do that even as adults. If things are going well, then that must mean that we deserve it. "We're good! Yay us!!! Dodged that bullet!" But we also learned to blame ourselves for every bad thing that showed up and to see bad things happening as punishment.
Do you remember when you were a child and you were just itching to grow up? You perceived big people as having all this power and freedom and you COULD NOT WAIT to get there. Now that we are adults we realize the truth that we have limited power over our external circumstances.
Sure, more often than not there are things that we can do to make our lives better. We can make choices to eat well, and exercise and take care of ourselves. We can make up our mind to quit an unfulfilling job and we can leave an abusive relationship.
But there are things that happen that are totally out of our control. Sometimes it's big things. The cancer diagnosis, the run in with a drunk driver, the economy that takes a rapid and frightening nose dive. And sometimes the disappointments are not so dramatic but still painful. We don't get the promotion, we are snubbed by a new friend, we enter our art work in a competition and don't win a prize.
It's a stretch for most people ( including myself) to see difficult, painful or disappointing circumstances as actual blessings in and of themselves. I know that there are spiritual teachings and teachers that try and cultivate that attitude, posing the question " What if it's all a blessing?"
Personally I am not there yet, but what I have been learning is that even when things are hard, and I am darned cranky about a particular, dubious "blessing" in my life, I can still choose to not take things so personally . In other words, just because things are crummy or crappy, it is not evidence that I have been banished from the garden or thrown out of the circle of god's love. It's not a sign that I am bad, or that I am being punished. It's not an excuse or open invitation to jump headfirst into the pit of shame and self hatred.
When we find ourselves in pain over not being able to create a beautiful painting we are up against the same issue. When we paint or write or create we are looking for great spirit's blessing, proof that we are worthy and good, deserving of love and all the good things the world has to offer.
And if we think that what we have created is "not good", or even just not good enough, we move out of that place of blessedness and into a place of shame. And that's why it is so painful. Our ( perceived) deeply flawed , imperfect self is staring us in the face, and worse yet, is out there for all the world to see. That's a lot of pressure to put on one little painting, or blog post, or song that we've written , but this is also the place where the creative process can bring us such a profound opportunity to heal.
What we always forget is that life loves us no matter what. We don't have to do anything special. We don't need to be any more talented than we already are to be connected to love. Love is always there. And in fact , one of the ways that we get proof that we are loved by the creator is by being given the power to be creators ourselves.
Our creativity itself IS THE GIFT. The creations are just byproducts and will not give us what we think they will anyway. We work so darn hard to get this THING, the finished product, when what we really want and need is right there in the doing.
The Buddhists have a saying about consciousness which is "What we are looking for is what is looking." and you can say the same thing about creativity " The creative fulfillment we are searching for is what is creating." Creativity itself IS the thing.
It's like when when we make a journey to another country that ends up transforming us. The experiences we have, the people we meet, the challenges we face while we are traveling are like being in the thick of the creative process.
The postcards we send, the pictures we take, the souvenirs we bring back home, are the creative product. It's what is left over, the shadow of the experience itself. These things are already dead and dusty and part of the past before we unpack our suitcases. The product is our way of trying to hold onto the creative moment.
So the only way to really deal with that dilemma is to just keep on creating. And to remember that while God is smiling on us at all times, when we are actually being creative, that smile gets a little bit bigger.