Indifference Guru

One of the demons I’ve had to repeatedly face along my path of creating and sharing my artwork on a daily basis has the indifference to which the creations are received. I know that far more followers on various social media outlets see these posts than do those who interact with them (like, star, fave, etc) because other, non-art posts on those services get that kind of interaction. Not a ton, but enough to contrast that which the art gets.

As a recovering over-identifying artist, this can be a constant jab at the ego. In a way, this was one of the things I wanted to face directly with this practice. Increased production requires the relinquishment of other consumption habits. Social media was an early time-sink that I let go. You discover quickly how tenuous those connections actually were when there isn’t a mutually-flowing dopamine reward of recognition maintained. As Stephen Pressfield says in “The War of Art“, “There is no tribe”.

After a recent vacuum of response from a posted drawing, again the hurt ego reared up and attempted to begin the indignant tirade against its perceived oppressors. But a thought crept in, which slowly defused this rant. I had really been enjoying this last round of art creation. I felt at home, in a style which came easily and allowed me to create more. I knew there was something deeper going on here. 

This was the result of something of an “opening” of a long-standing creative block that was dislodged sometime in the late Summer of early Autumn of 2014, about 6 months ago. For years, I’d been hitching my wagon to some art software that dictated a specific look, feel and approach to creating art. Decidedly unlike creating in the analog world. Again, part of my daily creation practice was designed to work less in this mechanical method, and more in one in which I was more comfortable. Even digitally, this is achievable to a great degree.

I had the realization quite early on that my choice of software was one which allowed me to emulate a look, a style, a level of quality that I was unable to attain on my own (or at least, had not put in the practice to reach that level of technical prowess at the time). This soon became apparent as a form of low artistic self-esteem and low artistic self-confidence (and I am sure that holds true if you drop the word “artistic” as well). There it was, perfectionism rearing its ugly head in yet another disguise. Subtly, it was a way of telling myself “how you draw without these tools is not good enough”. I had set up this arbitrary standard that unless I was able to achieve it, my abilities were insufficient.

The one thing drawing daily forced me to do was to drop all these “defense mechanisms”. The art I created with that software was too labor-intensive to maintain a daily pace like that. And this was yet another creative block I was looking to dismantle with this daily practice — procrastination through the burden of laborious technique. I had to get back down to basics, and work to my current level of skill. Whatever that was. And be OK with that. That last part has proven to be the toughest, by far.

Over time, I began exploring different styles. Some more successful than others. But it struck me at one point that what I was calling a “sketch” could be considered “final art”. A friend pointed this out to me as well. Not in the context of that software I had invented a paradigm around, or these imagined ideals and standards I’d placed on the definition of “final art”, but free of any context. My inspiration here is the illustrator Jack Davis, whose art used to really bother me when I was younger because “it was just a sketch!”. It seems those seeds of discontent were sown early.

At any rate, I found myself slowly exploring and working in styles that were more and more natural and comfortable, if not the clean and precise style that I’ve envied and worked to emulate for nearly all of my artistic life. I had been trying all these years to force my abilities into an idealized style, instead of creating the art that came naturally to me and allowing the style to express itself. Of course, when trying to force my skills to conform to some idealized style I always fell short — reinforcing all the negative self-assessments — for the very fact that this was just not the way I naturally create. A subtle and insidious form of perfectionism-fueled procrastination.

Mimicking this idealized style was like the fabrication of a persona to fit in with others, acting how one imagines others expect one to act. I was doing the same thing with my art: I was contorting it to look the way I thought others expected it to look. This is not healthy.

As I was creating one of these daily sketches the other day, some initial pangs of bitterness about this lack of attention transformed into the realization that this indifference was like the harsh Zen Master and his stick. It was there as a guide, a guru, and escape hatch. By slowly whittling away the attention of others and the external validation — but persisting in the daily practice — I slowly began to ease out of these constraints about styles I had convinced myself I “had to” work in. Nobody I was subconsciously trying to impress was paying attention anyways. Slowly, I began to just draw what I felt like drawing, the way that came naturally to me, and to my own level of satisfaction. I no longer had an “artistic agenda”.

Powering on in the face of the demon of indifference revealed it to be the guise of a guru. It was pointing The Way by trying to scare me off of it. The Master of the Temple isn’t trying to get you to abandon your efforts, instead he’s trying to show you exactly where to go. There is no struggle to be overcome, there is no Master to please. Once you realize the way to get past the Master at the Doorway is to just walk past him, he no longer blocks your path.

This has been, and still is, a gradually unfolding realization. But as I slowly have this extended eureka, I’m seeing a style of art blossom. One which I’ve been hestiant to embrace and identify with, but with which I am slowly becoming more and more at ease.

This eureka can be stated plainly: your style is what you create when you are finally not trying to create something to live up to the imagined and projected standards and expectations you’ve convinced yourself others have of you.

Procrastination through style. Like Pressfield’s concept of the Shadow Career in “Turning Pro”, one can have a Shadow Style.

The reality is that these are all limitations within you, and which you’ve externalized. It a handy way to avoid the responsibility — and the truth — that the only one standing in that doorway blocking your way this whole time was you.

The demon, it seems, was actually a guru in disguise. I think it’s obvious by now who the guru is.

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4 thoughts on “Indifference Guru

  1. Wow, George! This is really good. Great actually. You hit on something extremely fundamental here. I’ve gone through just the process you describe, and continue to go through it. It persists and takes on different shades of meaning as one learns to cope with it. What a beautiful phrase to capture it by: the indifferent guru.

    I went through this via music when I was in my late teens early 20s. I’ll skip elaborating, but the indifferent guru led me to abandon my aspirations for using music as a way to make a living. But I did not abandon music. Like what you describe, it became much more personal, more rich, no longer confined by what I thought the world wanted. I still write songs occasionally.

    I went through this with my first book, Beyond the Physical. I tried to sell the book and instead the indifferent guru met me and said nothing. The little feedback I got was not helpful and I was generally ignored. This is what led me to just start posting my writings to the net, as the net began to take off.

    I go through it with my scientific papers. I published an important (I feel its important!) paper in 2008. In 2010, I took the studies to a meeting of my discipline. It was the first time anybody saw the work. No one knew the 2008 paper existed. Ironically, just now it is becoming fashionable to study what we published in 2008.

    I’m going through it again right now. There is a back-story behind these posts I am doing on the yogic view of consciousness. I won’t go into details, but there is an intended audience who is ignoring the whole thing.

    When I was younger these kinds of things stung my ego. I’ve been though it enough now to know that the bottom line is: you need to just express yourself for no other reason than to express yourself. In fact, this line of thought is the origin of my little phrase: “Only God can please everybody all the time”. Because what I do pleases nobody but me. I always do my best though under the supposition than someday, some one might take it seriously.

    There is a very deep insight about the world in general in what you are saying. It is the case that everybody is running around and trying to use everybody else to satisfy their desires. Nobody takes anybody for what they are, but instead takes the other for what they want them to be. The indifferent guru teaches us this. When we learn his lesson, then we are at least in a position of deciding if that is how we want to live, or if we want to be different. I’ve chosen to not run around and superimpose what I want over the world because that’s where karma comes from.

    Again, George, simply brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing this.

    All my best,

    Don

    1. Don,

      Thanks for your insights here, indeed the Indifference Guru is not limited to artistic pursuits.

      An early insight that led me down this line of thought was a series of conversations with a like-minded and long-time friend. He too is a musician who currently does not earn his living doing so.

      I wondered at one point in our discussions about procrastination and a lack of drive and persistence if it was due to the fact that we craved not the practice of these abilities, but rather the attention they once garnered for is — particularly when we were younger and it was much more amazing to the adults from which we sought external validation.

      As one ages, that attention wanes, and if your passion is derived from external validation such as the attention of others, your motivation to continue those activities wanes along with it.

      I think this can lead to a fabrication of a false identity that seeks to please others, resulting in inauthentic and timid styles, topics and mediums of creations. Ironically, it may be this very seeking of approval which results in mediocre work that fails to generate this attention one seeks!

      Cultivating the pleasure in the process seems to be the way out of this trap. We have been conditioned to value the product, but the real wealth, I am finding, is in the process.

      Process, because of its typically behind-the-scenes nature, also seems to cultivate internal validation.

      But again, it was this indifference which initially I perceived as a negative which in time revealed itself to be liberating. I’m still working on that aspect, but to have this new perspective on it is a big help.

      Thanks again Don.

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