The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

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I recently read The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield, a short book about overcoming the true obstacle to creativity: resistance. Divided into three books (“Resistance: Defining the Enemy”; “Combating Resistance: Turning Pro”; and “Beyond Resistance: The Higher Realm”) with brief chapters, Pressfield’s text makes you terribly aware of why you are not being creative, why you aren’t starting and/or finishing projects of all kinds. He states simply that resistance is the enemy within that we create and allow to flourish by not going to war with it on a daily basis, which we must do because it is not something that can be defeated once and for all but is something we will face whenever we start any new venture that can lead to what we fear most—success, as Pressfield believes. Resistance, he claims, can come in any form and at any time. It prevents us from doing our work, and in order to keep it in check and from getting the best of us we must be “professional” by showing up at our desk (or wherever it may be that we do our creative work) every day and engaging in the act of creation.

Resistance is fear, fear of progress, fear of doing well, of failing, of succeeding, and the only way to resist those fears and countless others is by confronting them head on and battling them by actively creating and moving toward our creative goal daily until we have accomplished it and moved on to the next. The key is to never let resistance find even the smallest of spaces (read, excuses) to keep you from creating every day and becoming a success. Pressfield notes that not only is self-sabotage the definition of resistance but that others can sabotage us too, and that this can take a number of forms. He also points out that procrastination is the most common type of resistance. He even tells his readers that falling under the spell of consumerism is resistance, as it “medicates” us into becoming a zombie of sorts just like the rest of the masses, disabling our ability to create—exactly what resistance wants. Resistance also, ultimately, makes us victims and many of us seem eager to wear the role as a badge of honor. Doing so also permits resistance to dominate you. Don’t let it happen.

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For Pressfield it is of the utmost importance that as artists we “enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls” and that we understand “that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery.” Pressfield makes it quite clear that formidable commitment to the work, to being present at our workstation every day, is the method through which we dominate resistance, combat fear, and succeed in our creative endeavors. But he also tells us we must be prepared to “dine for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation.” In other words, being a creative artist is a solitary vocation, one that will encounter many obstacles of all shapes and sizes, each of which must be overcome no matter how bruised it may leave us in the end. No matter what, one must keep one’s eyes on the prize: the finished project. And while on the journey we must take joy in the process and not give thought to the praise or criticism that will inevitably come when the work of art is ready for public consumption, for thinking about these things will enable resistance to rear its ugly head and bite you, causing you to become numb with fear and paralyzed, preventing you from moving forward in your work, from bringing your art into the world.

Aside from showing up at our creative workplace every day, other tips Pressfield gives us on how to be a “professional” artist include being patient not just in terms of our career but also when it comes to each individual project so that we don’t burn out before we’re finished; he also tells us that the professional “eliminates chaos from his world in order to banish it from his mind,” thereby giving the muse free passage into his imagination, fertilizing it with inspiration; a professional looks at their creative work not as art but as a craft; acts in the face of fear and does not offer or accept excuses; does not show off; does not take success or failure personally; masters technique; distances himself from the instrument of his art; faces adversity and self-validates; recognizes his limits and is able to reinvent himself.

The third part of the book concerns discovering and letting in the muse that provides us with the inspiration to do the work and create the art we were called to do. Pressfield believes as I do: that artists are called upon to birth works of art that are representations and expressions of our soul’s journey and evolution toward self-truth and active creation and participation in the world. But to let the genius of creativity reveal itself, to give the muse the time and space she needs to sow the seeds of divine inspiration in the soil of our mind, bringing forth a garden of myriad flowers in our imagination, we must get out of our own way once we’ve begun to routinely fight resistance in our daily lives as artists. Once we have reined in resistance in its multiple guises we must do battle with the ego, that part of ourselves that breeds fear and resistance, that seeks to control us and keep things as they are, preventing change, thwarting improvement and our work toward greater fulfillment and happiness through the path of creativity.

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The ego is at war with the Self, the fully integrated personality of each human being, of which the ego is a part and over which it wishes to reign supreme. The ego, as Pressfield defines it, “is that part of the psyche that believes in material existence,” thus it finds itself in a world of illusions that it perceives as real. The Self, on the other hand, which is present within the individual and is ultimately that which contains and permeates all things in the cosmos, is the only reality. When discovered and accepted for what it truly is, the individual suffers no illusions and sees the many as one, and that death, time, and space are all illusions. There is, from this perspective of objective clarity, not subjective delusion, but a true understanding that love and compassion are “the only imperatives of life” and that God (the Self) is alone real.

Our task is to demolish the ego, to let the fully embodied Self govern supreme and as one over ourselves and then share that Self, that spirit, with others and the world through our art. Further, we are meant to engage in revolutionary action in the world with that energy of the Self with which we fight the ego and the resistance we face each day in our creative work. For Pressfield, we are all born with a destiny that it is our life’s purpose and journey to discover and then manifest. “We come into this world with a specific personal destiny. We have a job to do, a calling to enact, a self to become. . . . If we were born to overthrow the order of ignorance and injustice of the world, it’s our job to realize it and get down to business.” Once we have become one with the Self within, which is an emanation of the Self that eternally exists in and sustains the world through constant renewal, taking endless joy in the effortless dance of creation, we will be able to listen for the muse and welcome her over the threshold into our heart and mind, out of the void in which the Self dwells, always creating.

By the end of The War of Art one realizes that for Pressfield the creative artist is a warrior, one who must forever be at war with the forces of resistance, fear, and delusion that the ego employs in its tireless quest to keep the artist standing still, paralyzed, and from becoming the artist he is meant to be, one who tears away the veils of illusion and reveals to the world the true purpose of art and the artist: to be the living embodiment and expression of the spirit of life, of infinite creation, and of living free of the tyranny of conformism, egotism, and ignorance, and the fear, doubt, and anxiety each of these is attended by when one is not master of oneself. The artist is the supreme individual, chosen by God to be a revolutionary, set loose on the battlefield, marching against forces bigger but not stronger than himself when he knows and is master of himself, cutting them off at the knees and then decapitating them so they no longer hold power over him or the rest of humanity. The artist is the bearer of salvation, who teaches others that it is only through discovering the authentic self and accepting our individuality that we can be liberated from the illusion that we aren’t already free, and from the illusion that freedom can only be found in conformity and the dulling of all thought, emotion, and sensation with which its greedy, self-centered purveyors and mindless enforcers seek to chain us down and enslave us.

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