Thursday, May 28, 2009

The War of Art - Steven Pressfield

Cover of Cover via Amazon

Based on a recommendation from Larry Winget ( Larry_Winget ), I bought and read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Just riffling through the pages, the book seems unimpressive - a skinny book, too much white space, too large a font - the construction of a middling business success book of the week. But, contrary to initial appearances, any way you slice it, this is a deep and meaningful book, and must have taken Pressfield longer to plan and write than the word count would otherwise suggest. It took me longer to read than the word count alone would suggest.
(Aside: I was raised as an Evangelical Lutheran, but the personified Satan

Satan as seen in Codex Gigas.Image via Wikipedia

played a small role in my thinking - Christ was a mammoth figure, but Satan was puny in significance - which is atypical for Fundamentalist Protestantism youth ministry. I have no idea if this was a quirk of my own thinking as a child, or a feature of our little Evangelical Lutheran church and day school in Garden Grove, California.
I mention this because one of the most profound things I took away from The War of Art was to seriously consider "The Resistance I Feel" as a "Personified Being", akin to Satan as Personified Evil. It changed my behavior after I thoughtfully read it. I am not being overly dramatic: The War of Art has found me praying to God several times a week, which is greatly out of character for me since I lost my childhood faith in high school. The War of Art is not a religious book - that is just how I found to be the most natural way to take its message into my life.)
... I am getting too far ahead - how about a summary of the book?
The War of Art - Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles is putatively about overcoming writer's block. In the book, "The Resistance" is personified as a being responsible for everything preventing you from doing creative work - all the feelings, all the interruptions, all the obstacles, always manifest as a vigorous hindrance. The Resistance is activated whenever work towards our highest goals is attempted.
The response mounted against The Resistance is:
  • "willingness to play hurt", as a professional sports player would, in mental attitude
  • "Turning Pro" - relentlessly fighting against everything that even might prevent Work of the highest quality being done, day in and day out.
Failure is embraced, and, thus, the commitment to Daily Work of the Highest Quality can be complete - and that is why Failure must be embraced. This prescript from the Bhagavad-Gita is embraced: we have the rights to our labor, but not to the fruits of our labor. Seeming Futility is embraced - so the commitment to Daily Work of the Highest Quality can be complete.
Why is resistance personified into The Resistance? Well, there is a natural conservative force in all humans. (...all humans not suffering from mania. Mania could be described as all ideas immediately turned into irresistible action, and just a little time spent around someone suffering from mania will show you that that is a curse.) Most tasks outside of our repertoire are resisted, for the simple reason that most tasks that spring from most ideas are potentially harmful - our limited energy is most safely spent on the basic set of daily actions in our repertoire. Think about our hunter/gatherer past - time spent on cockamamie ideas is time spent away from the chores of hunting and gathering food. So we have a built-in re-enforcement of continuing and repeating the actions already in our daily repertoire.
Unfortunately, in the modern world where survival is not a pressing concern, a goodly number of the actions in our daily repertoire are mainly centered around:
  • Mind your headImage by Swamibu via Flickr

    "amusing ourselves to death"
  • meaningless distraction
  • managing our tender moods with coping activities of no sustainable benefit
  • indulging and nurturing a set of needy anxieties, instead of disowning them and letting them vanish from utter inattention
The issues I am talking about are covered here:
Beyond the built in conservatism of the mind, nature also has a conservative attitude to actions outside of our repertoire - this is not a conspiracy, just the fact that your immediate physical space can only support a limited range of activities at a time, without descending into a distracting, chaotic mess.
"The Resistance" is meaningfully personified because it can use all the elements of our own personality and person-hood against us, as a restraining force. Perversely, The Resistance can also use our own enthusiasm against us, egging us on to over-exert in the beginning, leading to a predictable crash into depressing frustration at the first difficulty. The Resistance is hoping this depressing frustration is permanent.
Expanding on Steven Pressfield's ideas, I see the resistance acting the strongest when we try to move above our current moral plane, and attempt to take residence in a higher moral plane, and similarly when we attempt to take residence in a higher plane of personal effectiveness.
What we are talking about is a force that will not hesitate to use the most arresting anxieties to prevent even the tiniest step towards productive work on higher moral goals or other goals of personal effectiveness.
This is a vile thing, and needs a steely perseverance to overcome. Again and again, never letting up.
"Book Two: Combating Resistance - Turning Pro" is 40 pages of what "Turning Pro" to battle The Resistance entails in the real world - this part of the book looks like very light reading, but each page can be profitably mulled over to bring that element into focus in your current working life.
(Aside: Writing this little essay is exercising anxieties for me... ...exactly as you would predict if a personified force called The Resistance used the whole of my environment and my personality and person-hood to try to make me drop into a cozy routine of coping activities of no sustainable benefit and concentrating on managing my tender moods. Frantic web-browsing time wasting... Really, my scalp is itching, my legs are bouncing, and I feel uncomfortable in my own skin. Embarrassing to admit how real the physiology of this is... What really brings these issues to the fore is the scary thought of my years as a scarce resource.)
"Book Three: Beyond Resistance - Higher Realm" made me roll my eyes condescendingly when I first read it because prayer plays a large role in this section. I have not regularly prayed since I lost the faith of my childhood during high school. I am not going to write out Pressfield's ideas here - I am going to talk frankly about where my thinking is now after a journey begun by talking this section of the book seriously in my own life.
Several times a week, I go down on my knees and pray. This is a summary of the feeling and meaning of those prayers:

A man praying at a Japanese Shintō shrine.Image via Wikipedia

Please help me to fight The Resistance in my own life.
Please help me to move from my current moral plane, and take residence in a higher moral plane, and continue to improve my morality through the rest of my life.
Please help me to move from my current current lever of personal effectiveness, and take residence in a state of greater personal effectiveness, and continue to improve through the rest of my life.
As I make these improvements, please help me cultivate an attitude of happiness and peace, so that the effort of these improvements can be sustained over the years of my life.
The Resistance will use anxiety against me, drawing from all the limiting powers of my environment, and drawing from the negative elements of my personality and person-hood. Please give me the strength to rise far above such an wicked opponent.
Give me daily strength to persevere, so my every day gives evidence of good work accomplished, all leading to my higher goals, that I can resolve with greater and greater clarity.
Please help me, because I am a small thing in a very large world, and my personal continuity is tiny compared to the forces I must navigate about and within.
Please help me to do your will,
Oh Muses,
Please give me the inspiration to create. Please give me artistic taste, access to knowledge, keen vision, and sound judgement to perform work of the highest quality, today and every day. All I ask is for the smallest amount to keep my production of good work steady, in defiance of The Resistance.
Those two prayers summarize pretty well where I am with my current thinking, which would have been very much out of character for me just a few months ago.
I felt the relief of being able to pray again, and draw strength and focus from prayer (even though I value the intellectual honesty of a position of atheism). I felt the relief of praying to a God whose attributes I chose, instead of having a cruel and needy and jealous god pressed upon me for me to prostrate myself, before it. Both of these, together, have been a great relief.
So, that is where I am at, now. I have some more details to flesh out, but this covers the main points. I really appreciate the clarity of having the true vision of The Resistance that I am working against. More than any other self-help book, from reading Steven Pressfield's War of Art, I can form my own plan for how I will keep working, now and in a future of continual growth.
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