Taking the Plunge: Part 3

It has been a slow plunge to take fully, but I am now solidly submerged. I just read an article in the New Yorker, so my thoughts are filtered through the lens of what it is like to be a twentysomething.

This past Thursday was the last day at my office job. I’ve been working two days a week for about 4 months now, which has been amazing but not perfect. I’ve been able to pay all my bills, and so not draw down my savings which I planned to keep me afloat for about the next year or so. The year or so starts now. Some imperfections of part-time: a gradual feeling of disconnect from the work, making it more and more rote as the weeks go by. A feeling of not-entire commitment to art and creativity. An excuse to not get a lot of other work done, because, hey, my bills are paid.

Already, life is coming into focus. I am twenty-eight. I have no income, but I have no doubt that I could have income if I needed it. I have a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s degree in geology, I’ve worked in sustainable agriculture, carpentry, and green building, and I have a feeling that none of them are where I want to put my life’s effort. I am planning to apply to art school in Iceland, but also have no idea how long I’ll want to do that. I am currently reading about five good books and have no conception (literally, zero) of where I will be in two or five or ten years. I am single and have been for a while, and I can’t really imagine what it would be like to incorporate another person into my life. I am not usually lonely. I spend between one and two dozen hours a week at coffee shops. I try to make art and play music everyday, but rarely manage for three days in a row. I am working on starting a tiny hummus business. I exercise twice most days and meditate about five times a week. I am about to take a 10-day road trip to Southern California because I have that much free time. I am completely at sea and full of contradiction, and I am the happiest I’ve ever been.

It is hard to say what is going on. I have always thought that happiness would come through some greater purpose, by some well-examined life on a direct path to some clear-cut definition of success. I have always been competitive and driven, but I have not always been happy. Now that I am relatively aimless, I feel present and alive and exuberant. I have the time to be inspired by life. I laugh when the sun is out in the morning (a rarity in wintertime Seattle). I also laugh when it is raining, thinking about all the people grumbling. I laugh at the way raindrops ripple a puddle. If you had a recording of my life, you would think I was crazy, laughing all the time and grinning while I walk around town in the cold and damp. There are some concrete things that contribute to this behavior: low but daily doses of caffeine, vitamin D supplements, consistent exercise, lack of internet/TV/media, good sleep. But it is the intangibles that really do the trick. Freedom of time and space in good measure (not so much as to be bogged down by choice), quality socializing, a clear mind (aided enormously by the lack of internet/TV/media), a desire for creativity, expression, and openness.

Will this happiness last? I don’t know. I do feel a push for something bigger, but a lot of the things I’m chipping away at now could be bigger at some point. I’ll probably start volunteering when I’m back from my road trip, which should help inre: purpose, community, socializing. But here’s why I think this all might be valuable even if I never become a successful artist or writer or musician. I feel like I am teaching my brain how to be happy. I’ve been reading a bunch of neuroscience-y books, and it sounds like this is possible. Maybe the most important thing I am accomplishing right now is setting up pathways in my brain that will persist beyond this expansionary phase of my life (although I don’t plan for this phase to end). I’m about to read Happiness, which I think will solidify these ideas and probably be life-changing in lots of positive ways. Also good: A General Theory of Love, The Geography of Bliss, anything by Rumi.

People seem to be worried about whether this life is economically feasible. I guess my response is, what’s the point of having an economically feasible life if it isn’t one you want? Is the purpose of our perplexingly short time on this planet to make ends meet? Of course not. To be slightly pragmatic yet thoroughly optimistic: if I am deeply happy and intensely satisfied with what I am doing with my life, and willing to share that with others, it will become economically feasible. If I make bad art long enough and love doing it, it will get better. If I am a terrible writer for ten years and put my heart and soul into it, at some point I’ll be a good writer. If my fingers are slow on the guitar and my voice is out of tune, but I do it every day because there is nothing I’d rather be doing, eventually I’ll play beautifully. I feel lucky to have a head start on so many good things, and to be in a place where I can focus on expanding my own awareness of life. So here I am, submerged.

Bold colors, drips

Art and Soul

This fall I decided to work through two new “how-to” books, one on creativity and one on kung fu. I thought this would get me going in two different directions since these two things are so clearly distinct. One is about art, one is about the body. I slowly realized, however, that I was essentially dealing with the same beast: energy, life flow, chi. This is one of those ideas that automatically makes whoever is talking about it sound hippie-dippy, like someone who has never picked up a science book and spends a lot of time waving around sticks, wearing overly-comfortable tie-dyed pajamas. I’m not saying I would never wave sticks around like that (and who doesn’t love comfortable pajamas?), but I do also have more than the average number of degrees in hard sciences (2). I’m pretty sure we have this mental image about energy flow because of the way the media characterizes it, maybe some remnant of a backlash against the 60’s spirit of free-love or something. I’m too young and un-media-savvy to know. But to the point.

Here’s what I’ve been working on. For creativity: The Artist’s Way. The subtitle reads “A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” to give you an idea. Once I started this, I found out that it’s actually quite popular among certain groups, and there are meet-ups for people scattered on coffee shop bulletin boards all across the country. And for kung fu: The Shaolin Workout. Subtitled: “28 Days to Transforming Your Body and Soul the Warrior’s Way.” I haven’t met anyone else who has seen this book, but I don’t travel much in martial arts circles.

I’m on week 5 of 12 in The Artist’s Way, and day 17 of 28 in The Shaolin Workout. I’ve been going about half speed in The Artist’s Way, often getting distracted for a few days and finding myself behind schedule. I’ve found that the “days” referred to in The Shaolin Workout are more metaphorical, along the lines of “four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, three in the evening.” This book contains a lifetime of movements to be learned and perfected. Many of the later exercises are near impossible without years (I presume) of focus on flexibility (“standing tall, kick one leg up to graze your toe against your forehead with control while keeping both legs straight” kind of stuff).

Here’s the basic idea behind The Artist’s Way. Creativity is not something we can simply focus hard on to produce. Rather, it is a flow that travels through us from some external force, some god or higher power or what-have-you. We, as artists, have to learn to disconnect our internal censors from this flow and just let it rush through us. Without our censor blocking the flow of creativity, we will be able to fill pages or canvasses or rolls of film. The important thing is that it doesn’t matter if you “believe” in where this energy is coming from. You don’t have to believe in God, per se. But thinking about it in this way will allow you to create art in a non-destructive way, a way that doesn’t require drugs or alcohol or addictions to silence the censor for you.

I’m not sure that I’m necessarily very far along this path right now, but even the short moments of clarity I’ve had with it have been wonderful. It comes with a feeling of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. It allows me to do one of the most necessary and difficult things to do when practicing something new: to fail. To make terrible art and trite writing. I’m starting to understand how important this is, and how I’ll never get any better unless I actually do it and work on it and slowly get better.

It’s good that I’m learning to be OK with failure, because kung fu is HARD. This is not something my body is used to. My hips and hamstrings are tight with a lifetime of sitting in cars and chairs. I cannot graze my toe against my forehead with a straight leg in a controlled way, or in even a wildly uncontrolled way. That’s going to take a lot of practice and stretching. At the end of each workout there is a meditation to focus on for the rest of the day. Things started to come together when I got to the Chinese proverb, “Be not afraid of moving slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” So I’m chipping away at the tightness in my hips, just as I’m chipping away at the censor blocking my creativity.

But here’s the thing. Both of these are actually working on the same thing. Kung fu focuses on releasing chi and letting that energy rush through me. The Artist’s Way focuses on releasing creativity and letting that energy rush through me. The tightness in my hips is constricting my chi, making it harder to stand up straight and tall, making my body a less-than-ideal place for this energy to pass easily. The creative blocks I’ve built up through years of being a perfectionist are making it difficult for me to sit down and paint. After doing the kung fu stretches, my body feels loose and energized, and I feel a sense of exuberance and life. When I actually do sit down and draw, my mind feels free and energized. As my energy flow increases, my head buzzes with openness, expansiveness, connectedness. I feel that I am (or at least am nearer to being) a fully empowered and creative being.

I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’ve read some books. I also don’t know much about energy flow, chi, etc, aside from what I’ve picked up through kung fu and yoga. But I think this all has something to do with the right side of the brain. I’ve written about the right side of the brain before, and this talk by Jill Bolte Taylor gets at a lot of what I think I’m talking about. It does make sense that martial arts would put you in your right-hemisphere, though. The movement of the body and spatial awareness that creates is exactly the kind of thing that shifts your focus from the analytical to the holistic. If this irrational, emotive hemisphere is also where the creativity to practice visual arts comes from (as it seems to be), then the two are perfect complements. More chi, more energy, more creativity, more flow, whatever that means. More kung fu, and more art. A life of openness, expansiveness, connectedness. Sounds good to me.

Meditate with Max!

Taking the Plunge: Update

I’ve been trying some new things lately. It all started a few weeks ago when I scaled way back at my job. Results so far: awesome. Who knew 5:30 AM could be an appropriate time to wake up?

I gave notice at my job in late July so I could focus my energies on creative endeavors, and after some conversations decided to stay on part-time two days a week. I started the new work schedule and lifestyle after returning home from hiking the Wonderland Trail in the beginning of September.

While I was hiking, I came to a few things I wanted to try incorporating into my lifestyle, especially yoga and meditation. I had some ideas about the creative aspects as well, but hadn’t fleshed out how that was really going to work. So I started with the morning yoga on my first day back in town. I decided 7 AM was a reasonable time to wake up for it, but I found myself waking up earlier naturally from being on trail time. I also tacked on 15 minutes of meditation after my hour yoga session, figuring my mind would be in a good place for it then.

It has been wonderful. My body and mind feel completely ready for the day after stretching and clearing them both. My hamstrings and hips are getting to a place they’ve never been before, and my head feels correspondingly open and free. I’ve found that I love the morning, and that I want to see more of it. I pushed my wake-up time forward from 6:30 to 6:00, and now to 5:30 AM. The glow of sunrise just starts to come through the trees just when I’m transitioning from yoga to meditation. I’m adding a minute onto my meditation session each week, figuring I’ll be able to sit longer as I become more experienced with it. Even when I have trouble keeping my mind clear (most of the time), I come out of it feeling refreshed and content.

After meditation, I make a quick breakfast and sit down to do some writing. Sometimes this ends up being stream of consciousness, sometimes an outline of a longer piece I’ve been thinking about, and sometimes just a sketch of what’s on my mind. It feels really good to put some words on (virtual) paper, though, and I’m usually ready to move on by about 7:30 AM. I used to struggle to be awake by 7:30. Even if I have trouble finding productivity later on, I feel good about how my morning went and use that as a springboard for positivity and motivation. Of course, my evenings have been truncated a bit, but mostly I’ve lost movie-watching (I don’t have internet at home, so being distracted by Youtube videos and NYTimes articles is a thing of the past). Being in bed with a book by 9:30 PM feels terrific. Maybe I’ve turned into an old man in my quasi-retirement?

The rest of my endeavors have definitely benefited from having an early schedule. At any time of day, it as been easy to get my mind in a place to write, paint, or make music. The two days a week of work is perfect for keeping me disciplined and making my free time feel valuable. Having some rent money doesn’t hurt either. So, win-win.

I’m curious to see if I can keep up the energy and motivation, and what kind of long-term effects I might see from such a different lifestyle. I’ll let you know. Looking forward to it!