Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist, has written many books on Buddhism and mindfulness. Her 1997 book, When Things Fall Apart, lays out Chödrön’s philosophy that everyone has the capacity for happiness available to them, but we tend to pass over it, focusing instead on the pain and suffering. Throughout the book she outlines how to use our suffering to learn lessons, show ourselves compassion, be more courageous, and work through the chaotic times when things fall apart.
This book had a profound impact on me, and it relates directly to the struggles of an artist and the cycle of creativity. Because sometimes art flows out of us easily and naturally, and sometimes it feels like the stream has all but dried up forever. Making art when the flow is on is easy. But if we’re in this for the long game, we’re going to come across difficult times. And we have to be able to keep going. But how do we do that?
I’m going to present 4 lessons I’ve culled from Chödrön’s advice and how these ideas can help us when our art—or our life—is falling apart. Because I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the two are closely linked, don’t you think? When life is easy, our art is easy. And when life is difficult, our art is difficult. So how do we achieve balance and not go crazy getting pinballed back and forth between the two extremes forever?
Buddhism seems to have some guidance for us as artists and humans. So this week, let’s jump into the first lesson from Chödrön.
Lesson 1: Accept the Falling Apart
Chödrön says that one of our biggest issues is we expect that one day we will overcome all our problems, solve all our worries, and absolve ourselves of suffering. We tell ourselves: If only I could just learn this one technique, buy this one pen, sell this one piece of work, all my artistic pain would go away and I could dance off into the sunset as a happy and successful artist. We think we just have to crest this one, last, difficult hill, and from then on it’s all smooth sailing, artistic nirvana, and creative enlightenment.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but me and Chödrön are on the same page—life, and art, just ain’t like that.
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.” ―Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times
I find myself falling apart—artistically and otherwise—at least a few times a year, and wouldn’t ya know it, every time I do I think it’s the end of the world. But the truth is that somehow I always bounce back, and I always emerge stronger for having gone through the falling apart. Which is maybe why I’m always surprised when my art falls apart the next time—”I thought I was stronger than this?! I thought I already overcame this?!”
Sometimes I’m ok at recognizing which part of the creative cycle I’m in—i.e. the flowing part or the struggling part—and can remind myself that it won’t last forever, and I’ll bounce back like I always do. But more often, I forget and panic and begin to believe that I’ll never find my artistic happy place again. And that is the most dangerous place we can be in. Because once we begin to believe that things will never get better, that we’ll never find our artistic flow again, that we’re failures, or weak, or ashamed, that’s when we can lose our way and start going down a very unhealthy path. If we begin to lose faith in ourselves and assume the difficulty will never end, we’ll most likely stop drawing and making art.
“The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” ―Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times
We have to remind ourselves that difficulty is just a part of making art, and a part of life. But it’s just one part, not the only part, and just because you’re struggling now doesn’t mean you’ll struggle forever.
And just because you are struggling now does not mean you are any less of an artist. In fact, it means you are in the process of becoming a stronger artist. It means you are facing something new and challenging yourself. The difficult times are when we grow, when we can confront the honest thoughts we’re having and make deep changes. This is when we learn the most about ourselves.
Art comes together, and art falls apart. It’s the creative cycle, and as Chodron says: it’s just like that.