This essay is the second in a series inspired by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist, and her 1997 book, When Things Fall Apart. In this series, 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 second lesson from Chödrön.
Lesson 2: There is No Perfect
Chödrön often talks about Samsara, a pillar concept in Buddhism. It basically means believing we can find permanent pleasure and avoid all suffering. For an artist it means believing we can create art we love every day all the time, and never be disappointed in what we create.
Sound familiar? It’s believing in and striving for perfection.
Welp, here we are, me and Chödrön, swooping in to burst your bubble. Chödrön tells us that not only are perfection and permanent pleasure impossible, but also that believing in the false Samsara puts us in a hopeless cycle of constant suffering. The truth is that it’s inevitable that we will make art we don’t like, we won’t be perfect, and we will fall into artistic slumps. Things will fall apart.
So if we accept that there is no permanent pleasure and imperfection is inevitable, then the question becomes: What do we do in those moments of disappointment and imperfection?
“From this point of view, the only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land. We use these situations either to wake ourselves up or to put ourselves to sleep.”
―Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
When the rug is pulled out from under us—i.e. when we’re struggling with our art—most of us choose to ignore it, push it down, blame it on something else, or as Chödrön says, “put ourselves to sleep.” Everyone has their own method of choice for putting themselves to sleep, be it drinking, eating, gossiping, social media, tv, drugs, or literally sleeping.
Instead of blaming these moments of imperfection on something else or putting ourselves to sleep, Chödrön says we have to use these moments of chaos. We have to see the vulnerability, honesty, and life in our imperfections. But it’s not easy.
We can allow ourselves to use the chaotic moments by remembering things are always in transition. Nothing is permanent. Not our suffering, and not our satisfaction. Not our slumps, and not our highs. Things come together, and things fall apart. And the only way to deal with it is to just be ok with it.
Sometimes our art will be bold and strong, and sometimes our art will be shaky and weak. Sometimes we’ll know exactly where we’re going with our art, and sometimes we’ll be completely and devastatingly confused. Sometimes we’ll be confident in what we make, and sometimes we’ll second guess every single line we draw.
But no matter what is happening in our life and in our art, we have to see it, acknowledge it, and accept it. We have to be ok with the uncertainty, relax when things are falling apart, and not panic or quit.
Because quitting when our art isn’t perfect—which is always—is the quickest way to ensure we’ll never make it through the struggle. We have to realize we’re in a moment of struggle, and be willing to be in it for the moment. Just this present moment. And once we stop struggling so much with the struggle, we can gently remind ourselves that this slump—like everything else—is in transition.
This slump is not permanent. There is no perfection. Whether we are confused or confident, our art is perfectly imperfect and alive.
And the only way through the slump is to keep going, and keep making art.
I’ll be back next week with Lesson 3: Focus on today.