Right Effort for Artists.

This blog was inspired by a conversation I had the other day with an artist who complained bitterly about the difficulty of doing art, that all sorts of things got in the way.

Again from Wikipedia, re Right Effort: “The practitioner should … [persist] in giving rise to what would be good and useful to themselves and others in their thoughts, words, and deeds, without a thought for the difficulty or weariness involved.”

So, you’ve chosen the pursuit of Art for your Right Livelihood. Art doesn’t harm anyone and its usefulness is to inspire, inform and enlighten (in a spiritual and emotional manner). It helps you and me along the path. In my case, Right livelihood is painting pictures (and sometimes sculpting). When I was fifty-five years old I figured out how to paint in terms of Right Effort. Halleluiah!

I know a lot of painters, writers, musicians, potters, actors. A problem common to a lot of them, is the ease with which they can be distracted from, or interrupted by, or lack the energy to actually do the work necessary to produce works. According to the Eightfold Path: Right Effort, the only way to produce work is to ignore all the things that prevent you from doing the work and then just doing of it. Of course it helps a lot if you can figure out why you let yourself be distracted. Previous to the age of fifty-five I had too much self-doubt (the other side of the coin is too much ego). Now I know that my value or worth as a painter cannot really be determined by me or by any outside agency. All I know is that if I don’t do any painting there is definitely no worth to the paintings. And, the more I paint the more I might learn about painting.

In order to live in a monastery you have to give up your right to decide what you will do next. You hand the decision over to someone else. Once having made the blanket decision to subsume yourself in the monastic routine, you are forced by that decision to produce. You work at the job assigned to you. You get exhausted. You fall asleep late. You get up early. If you don’t follow the routine then there is not much reason to be there. This is not much different than doing a job of work for a company. You do the work someone else requires of you or you lose your job.

We can get pretty comfortable working at a job, but we have a hard time working at what we think is important to our self. Why are we able to do the work at a job but find it hard, or impossible, to engage the work attendant to our creativity? Why can’t we treat our creativity as if it were simply our job? Safe to say that the most productive and famous painters, dancers, musicians, potters did not wait around for inspiration or energy or time free from distractions and interruptions. They all made their particular creativity their work and proceeded to work at it as if it were work.

If you think that hard persistent effort makes creativity too much like grunt work, lacking in inspiration, I pray that one day you will find that everything in the day to day is inspirational, if you only have eyes to see. Inspiration is something you work at, that you prepare yourself for, that you find in the work itself. Enjoy the grunt work. Remain aware while doing it, awake to the possibility inherent in every moment. Exhaust yourself. Fall down. Pick yourself up. Get lost. Laugh. Refuse to let the idea of hard work fill you with doubt or self loathing. Waiting around for inspiration is merely another way to get distracted, to procrastinate. What can be more inspirational than the mystery of life itself? Engage with it, with work, right now, day after day, no matter if the energy required seems unattainable. Just start. The path is endless. No time to waste.

I guess this post is because I wished I could have said these things to the artist who complained the other day. But I couldn’t do so because that particular artist wouldn’t have been able to hear, being too deep into the pain. All I could do was listen and say that I heard.

the above image can be seen on my website.


Yesterday on the ferry I said these exact words, “Rich people are all psychopaths. Well, to be polite about it they are all sociopaths.” Ha! Ha! Ha! How funny can a man get? I was sitting with someone who was richer than me and with someone who was poorer than me. What a joke. Self-condemned by my own words. After all, I am richer than some + 90% of the human race. What? Life as an exercise in comparative psychopathology?

My only excuse for saying such an inane thing is that I was so tired that I had momentarily slipped into past brain patterns (way back when I was a callow youth and had read too much Marx) and it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I remembered I had voiced such an foolish unkindness. This is my attempt to correct that mistake. Why would I not feel compassion for anyone who got rich instead of finding their true nature? Finding one’s true nature is far more important than money or no money. To paraphrase the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, “True nature will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no true nature.” But then I’m not burning any of my money.

My poorer companion proved that he was really rich by telling me about the importance of serving others.

Ah well, not all was a loss yesterday. In the grocery store a young man, juggling too many things to carry, dropped a bag. I bent down to pick up the bag for him. At least I pleased one person that day.

You might want to check out Peter Renner’s two blog posts on a similar topic:

what’s wrong with this picture and whats not right about yesterdays post.

Right Livelihood

On to a topic that is a little lighter than the past few that were inspections of Right Action. But then, Right Action is bound to be heavier than all the other parts of the Eightfold Path in that action is what we do directly each moment of the day. All the rest of the stages of the eightfold path are more mental, more what we have to consider before we act generally. Thinking before acting is not completely irrevocable; doing often is, or at least it is harder to correct the mistakes of doing than to correct the mistakes of thinking.

Right Action = each moment doing no harm. But the long term decisions that make us undertake certain occupations, such as the fact that I worked as a carpenter for so long, fall into the category of Right Livelihood. Right Livelihood is more specific than Right Action and therefore seems lighter as we can take the time to decide what to do. Right action is what one does right now, no time to think. It is equally true, however, that when one is engaged in one’s livelihood, moment by moment, one is also faced with the problem of Right Action.

From a Buddhist point of view, all things, all aspects of one’s life need to be approached from the perspective of doing no harm* and engaging fully with life. The Eightfold Path is merely (wonderfully) a device for looking at the central concern from various angles. Constantly considering the need for Right Livelihood is a way of looking at one’s job from the general point of view of doing no harm and being fully engaged. Constantly being engaged with the problem of Right Action is a way of inspecting all aspects of one’s life (that’s why I said earlier that Right Livelihood was lighter, even though it isn’t really, everything can be light or heavy or not; it’s up to one’s self).

I don’t work as a carpenter any more, but I did so for years. I started when my father refused to sign the paper that would have let me take music in grade ten. We were only allowed one option: either art, music or industrial arts. I wanted music. Dad made me take industrial arts because, “It will always give you something to fall back on.” Well, I was apparently good enough at it to fall back on it for far too long. Worked away with hammer and chisel for about twenty years. I built my own house with my own hands (and with kind help, here and there, from family, friends and from the occasionally hired electrician or dry-waller when I got sick of doing those particular jobs), which proved my father right: industrial arts did do me in good stead. But I was never happy with it and complained about my lot all the time, even as people congratulated me on making beautiful things.

Wikipedia has Right Livelihood meaning don’t do this or that kind of job: selling weapons, making poisons, killing animals, etc. But I don’t want to look at Right Livelihood using negative language. I’d rather look at Right Livelihood using positive language – what is the livelihood that is in you to do? Well, for me it wasn’t really carpentry.

I know now that I wasn’t really complaining for all those years about doing carpentry; I was actually complaining about the fact that I hadn’t figured out what it was that was in me to do. I complained about doing carpentry because somewhere deep inside I knew I was not doing what I really loved – more importantly, I was not yet capable of loving whatever I was doing. It was a great relief, momentarily, when I escaped carpentry by getting a job at the ferries. But then I spent fifteen more years doing another job that never fit my skin very well.

Luckily, when I was forty-five years old, I bought myself a bass guitar, thinking that maybe music was what I needed to do. I learned to play that guitar, not like a pro but good enough to decide to buy a bunch of recorders and learn to play them. Took singing lessons. Not a livelihood by any stretch of the imagination, but I was working towards something. Then one day, five years after buying the bass guitar, I walked into a room full of my friend’s sculptures and that was it. Something clicked. I started pounding away on wood, sculpting. Then five years after buying the guitar, I committed myself to painting full time. No more carpentry jobs. No more ferry job. I had found what I believe is my Right Livelihood. Painting is what I do to make money, but more importantly my right livelihood is my zen practice.

Painting lowers my blood pressure. Talking about painting lowers my blood pressure. I can’t imagine my painting hurting too many people. Painting teaches me to be focused and engaged. How can this be other than Right Livelihood? Although the livelihood proves a pittance, I’m not complaining. Doing the right thing to make money makes whatever money you make riches.

When I paint I naturally fall into the space that I struggle to attain when sitting zazen. Totally focused. Infused with two kinds of awareness. Aware of the point in front of me, and aware of everything that surrounds me: the cars honking miles away on the country road, a ship’s horn sounding out in the strait, the bird alighting on the balcony railing, the breeze blowing through the firs, the sudden movement of the brush on the picture plain.

My Iaido teacher tried to impress upon his students that the meditative awareness attained in practice needed to be taken into one’s day to day life or there was no point in practising. I suppose that is also why we practice sitting: in order to learn a type of focus and awareness — an engagement with moment after moment — that we can take into the daily life. In my case, I try to take the focus, awareness and engagement that I attain while painting into my practice of sitting, and into my practice of day to day life.

Yes, we can avoid livelihoods which cause harm for other sentient beings, but it is also possible to chose livelihoods which increase the wellness of ourselves and others. May we all be blessed by the blossoming of Right Livelihood.

(* what a bag of worms the topic of doing no harm is going to prove to be when I get around to it. How in the name of the universe can one do no harm?)

the above image from my website