This one may be a twisty-turny kind of discussion, but stick with me. (You know how we go to the most interesting places. We don't always come back again, but we sure know how to voyage.)
Dōgen, a key figure in Zen Buddhism, once offered up a piece of advice about zazen practice: "We establish practice just in our delusion." Meaning, we don't sit around and wait for Good Times or Clear Mind to come along before engaging in practice; we just practice and let everything else sort itself out around that.
Before I started Zen practice on my own, I made the same superficial connections between Zen and creative work — you and the work are the same thing, etc. The usual clichés. It was after several years of sitting that I started seeing how the whole business was providing a ground state for other frames of mind. At first, you see things as being "zazen" and "everything else", and then you see that there really isn't supposed to be any difference except for whatever you're lugging around inside your head, whatever you're self-consciously making into a difference.
The key thing, though, was not to try and engineer some Ideal Set Of Conditions to practice in. It helps to have a quiet, well-lit room and something comfortable to sit on, to be sure. But it's easy for beginners to get caught up in the idea that they have to have things in some meticulous arrangement, like the kid who can't sleep unless he gets his teddy and his glass of water and his good-night kiss and the door left open just enough to have the bathroom light leave a gentle splash on the wall, et any number of infantile ceteras.
Artists have a lot of things going on. They can't accomplish things without their particular set of situations — this word processor, that grade of pencil. Okay, fine. I'm a Microsoft Word guy; the last thing I'm going to do is belittle someone else for wanting to use the DOS version of WordStar to get things done.
Where this becomes toxic, though, is when you expect everything else in your life to get out of the way, or align in formation, before you feel like permission has been granted to let you Do Your Thing.
A few rituals of mine persist. I have a playlist with a bunch of ambient stuff on it that I fire up to help me get "into the zone". I like to close the office door and keep some fresh coffee at hand. I prefer not to check my mail before starting, lest I give myself excuses galore to not work.
Absence of these things have never been the real obstacles, though. The biggest and most obtrusive things to my creative flow were always my own expectations about how everything else in my life had to be going before I could give myself permission to do anything. If I had an angry letter sitting on my desk from the town council, that ruined everything, because every moment I was doing something as frivolous as working on my book was an affront to ... well, what exactly?
It took an embarrassingly long time for me to get over this.
Sanity check. I'm not saying it's a good thing to sneer at unpaid moving violation tickets because resolving them is a waste of perfectly good keyboard time. You definitely do not want to be waltzing into traffic court a year after you've been slapped with one. (Before Bill Cosby became a tragic figure, he had a great line about moving violation tickets: "They're like savings bonds — the longer you keep them, the greater they mature.")
Rather, my point is akin to Dōgen's. You can only start zazen practice with the mind you have, which is by definition full of stuff and nothing at all like the clichéd tranquil mind of enlightenment you keep hearing about from pretentious twits. Being able to see that cluttered-up mind for what it is, and work with it anyway, is what matters.
The same goes for anything else. You can't be creative only when the stars align, because you're always going to find a way to see the stars out of joint. It's easy to train yourself to do that, and never even realize you're seeking it.
When I get neurotic about the real world harshing my groove, the vast majority of the time I realize the only reason I'm feeling this worked-up about things is because I'm not doing anything about the problem in question. And the vast majority of that time, the solution is to go and do the one most immediate thing I could do about the problem, in the present moment. If there's nothing I can do about it right now, then make a list/schedule of the things that would need to be done to get this thing off your back, and then forget about it until it's time to do it.
Few people are masters of this sort of set-and-forget. Once they stare the problem in question in the face at all, they feel contaminated by it. The trick, though, is that the only way to get used to setting things aside is to ... set them aside. Over and over again. As someone else once said, "The real world will never run out of ways to get you to practice patience."
The best way to quit waiting for the good times is just to have them anyway.
I'll have more to say about this in a follow-up post.
Are you tired of waiting for the good times? Have a good time by checking out my (new!) novel Welcome To The Fold, and showing your support for it by registering at Inkshares and adding the book to your "Follow" list! Failing that, you can always buy one of my existing books, available on Amazon Kindle and in dead-tree format.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind