Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War, as well as others, has written an inspirational book about getting off your duff and into the writer’s seat (or getting to the artist’s easel, the dance floor, the gym, whatever it is you know is good for you). He calls it The War of Art, an apt title, for anytime we want to start a creative project, we have to know it is going to be an all out war. Something in us rebels, quickly, insidiously, against this act of self-betterment, and we find ourselves doing anything but sitting down and starting. Ask any artist: we are all in a war against the menacing, powerful foe that Pressfield labels Resistance.
He starts by saying, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance” (intro). When I want to write a blog post, I’ll find myself doing anything and everything but that. I’ll clean the house, mow the yard, take the dog for a walk – any number of things! And the irony of it all – once you somehow defeat resistance, just for the one day, and once you start writing, you actually feel relieved. You have started. Something is happening. We’re on the move, and all is well! As Pressfield says, if he has gotten up, started his day, and managed to sit down and put in a few hours of writing:
How many pages have I produced? I don’t care. Are they any good? I don’t even think about it. All that matters is I’ve put in my time and hit it with all I’ve got. All that counts is that, for this day, for this session, I have overcome Resistance. (intro)
The truth is, for the everyday man or woman, Resistance wins more often than not. “Most of us have two lives,” Pressfield says, “the life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance” (intro). In fact, he has created a “Greatest Hits” list (I assume the pun is intended) for all the pursuits Resistance seems to vanquish:
The pursuit of any artistic calling
The launching of any entrepreneurial venture
Any diet or health regimen.
Any program of spiritual advancement
Any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals
Any course or program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction
Education of every kind
Any act of political, moral, or ethical courage.
The undertaking of any enterprise or endeavor whose aim is to help others.
Any act that entails commitment of the heart (getting married, having a child, weathering a rocky patch in a relationship)
The taking of any principled stand in the face of adversity
In other words, any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. (5-6)
Something is in us that fights the initiation of a project that will help us make a change for the better. Something that likes the status quo. Something that fears change. Something that knows that if it gives an inch, we will take a yard. If it gives in to one little project, the others will keep coming, and soon the old self will be gone, replaced by a newer, more fuel-efficient contemporary model, and then what will have become of that something? And so, it fights. And it fights hard. As Pressfield says,
Resistance plays for keeps:
Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death. (15)
We cannot give up or give in, for it will destroy the more beautiful, innocent parts of ourselves – the parts that believe we can get better, we can make a difference in this world, things can change, things can become harmonious once again. Resistance fights those thoughts and the actions that those thoughts implement.
“Resistance is fueled by fear,” Pressfield says. “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer resistance” (16). Franklin Delano Roosevelt said this succinctly in his own way, at his inaugural address in 1933, at a time when America was facing the depth of the Depression – perhaps as a nation, we were succumbing to Resistance, about to be destroyed by it. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It became a battle cry, and Americans did sustain and make it through. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, may have given us the one way to get out of this hole when she spoke her oft-repeated sentence: “Do one thing everyday that scares you.”
That is all it takes, you see: do one thing every day that scares you. One time, beat resistance and sit down in front of the computer. One time, beat resistance and pull out the paintbrushes. One time, beat resistance and grab the seeds and the mulch. Just start!
Oh the fear comes in many ways, though. Pressfield notes that the fear of being alone is pervasive.
Sometimes we balk at embarking on an enterprise because we’re afraid of being alone. We feel comfortable with the tribe around us; it makes us nervous going off into the woods on our own.
Here’s the trick: We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.
It is commonplace among artists and children at play that they’re not aware of time or solitude while they’re chasing their vision. The hours fly by. The sculptress and the tree-climbing tyke both look up blinking when Mom calls, “Suppertime!” (45)
When you have conquered resistance and you have settled in, alone with the Muse, that is when you move into the more timeless, joyful place of creation. Like sleep, it may be a place that helps our body balance, helps us connect with our right-hemisphered, intuitive selves, and helps us move into a zone where we are receiving information from a source greater than our individual selves. In sum, it is of the utmost importance to visit this place, to move into this space, so why do we not? Pressfield has a nice solution to this problem:
Treat art the way you would treat your job:
Show up every day
Show up no matter what
Stay on the job all day
Commit to the long haul
Remember the stakes are high
Accept remuneration for your labor
Master the technique of your job
Keep a sense of humor about your job
Receive praise or blame in the real world (70)
And yes, once you have somehow, just for this one day, beaten resistance, you will discover what Pressfield calls “The magic of keeping going.” Once you start, Angels, Muses, the Unconscious, the Self – something will align with you and help this creation.
Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us.
This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation. It’s also why “noncreative people” hate “creative people.” Because they’re jealous. They sense that artists and writers are tapped into some grid of energy and inspiration that they themselves cannot connect with. Of course, this is nonsense. We’re all creative. We all have the same psyche. The same everyday miracles are happening in all our heads day by day, minute by minute. (127)
We all have access to this power, this force – it may be the life force itself. Jung called this higher consciousness the Self – in opposition to the ego. “The Self wishes to create, to evolve,” Pressfield explains. “The ego likes things just the way they are.” (136) However, accessing the Self is vital! “Dreams come from the Self. Ideas come from the Self. When we meditate we access the Self. When we fast, when we pray, when we go on vision quest, it’s the Self we’re seeking. When the dervish whirls, when the yogi chants…when we deliberately alter our consciousness in any way, we’re trying to find the Self.” (139) Our culture, it seems, is full of unhealthy attempts to banish the ego – the inner voice of self-contempt and self-ridicule. We drink, we smoke, we do drugs, we watch TV, we drive too fast – we do all sorts of things in an attempt to find a safer space. That space is available to all if we can just get past resistance – it surrounds it on all sides – and it is put in place by the ego.
In sum: “The Ego hates the Self because when we seat our consciousness in the Self, we put the ego out of business.” (140)
And then, ironically, if we can move past Resistance into this space of calm, creative bliss, we may still face one last fear:
Our biggest fear is the fear that we will succeed.
That we can access the powers we secretly know we possess.
That we can become the person we sense in our hearts we truly are. (144)
You see, the ego listened to all the things our families, our teachers, our TV shows, and our culture taught us. The Self listens to something much higher, unbound by time and space. The ego knows that when we tune in to the guidance from the Self, everything may change. We will become something and someone different, better, and the old self will, in many ways, disappear. We are becoming who we were born to become: “Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some ideal we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” (146)
So it is our life’s work, in truth, to become who we were born to become, to create what we were born to create. It’s a lovely process, this defeating the ego and embracing the Self, and it’s ongoing, never-ending. Some may have fully expressed their Selves, their divine natures, all or at least most of the time, and they seem to be household names now: Jesus, Buddha, Mother Theresa, Mohammed. They got past the need for applause or recognition from others, and they understood that their work, their creations, were more important than any accolades or material benefits. Anyone on a sustained path of creation must elevate their art to this importance. As Pressfield says, “The artist must do her work for its own sake” (151).
When you create, you are setting yourself in service of the forces of the divine. Don’t second guess your guidance! “Instead let’s ask ourselves like that new mother: What do I feel growing inside me? Let me bring that forth, if I can, for its own sake and not for what it can do for me or how it can advance my standing.” (157)
I hope that you won’t be hard on yourself, but that you will battle Resistance with all your might. Take care of yourself each day: eat well, sleep well, stay inspired – for you have a lot to do, and we all benefit when you get it done. Remember you need only do that one thing that scares you. It is enough. One thing a day.
Pressfield, Steven. The War of Art. NY: Warner Books, 2002.