To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.
Fixed in yoga, do thy work, O Winner of wealth (Arjuna), abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga.
Chapter 2, Verse 47-48
As an artist, I feel like I’m given a mini-classroom for this lesson on a daily basis. You come in, do your work, sometimes it comes out wonderfully and you’re on cloud nine as you leave the studio at the end of the day, and other times it doesn’t come out the way you would have hoped at all. It’s easy on those less fortunate days to let the mind spiral out of control. The negative thoughts can grow larger and larger as we let them gain momentum and take over.
Because it’s so easy to fall in to the trap of connecting our worth as people to what we produce, or what we do, the mind can easily go down a slippery path of “This section of the painting isn’t good…Therefore this painting isn’t good…Therefore, I’m not good…Why was I so stupid to even think I could do this in the first place?…My whole life and career is going to be a failure…I should probably just give up on all of it now.”
Before long, one tiny piece of one little painting, not turning out exactly the way that we wanted it to, has spiraled out of control in to us thinking that our whole life is probably a waste. It’s the height of delusion and yet I don’t think I know a single artist who doesn’t go through this.
On the days when things do come out the way we want, we can wind up suffering from the opposite reaction of overconfidence.
If we have a day when we‘re really painting well, we start to think “I’ve really got it figured out now! No more bad painting days for me! Clearly my mistakes are all in the past now!” The ego gets worked up and tells us that we’ve got it all figured out and that it will all be smooth sailing from here on out. Obviously this is just setting us up for disappointment, for when we do inevitably make another painting that doesn’t live up to our expectations. In the end, it’s really just another form of attachment: Attachment to the idea that we should expect all of our struggles to be over with.
We ride up and down on this rollercoaster of emotions, because our egos have attached our self worth to what we do. Not only to what we do, but ultimately to the result of those actions. In reality, if we’ve gone in and given it our best each day, that’s the best we can do. In that regard, we’ve done the same thing both days, whether the painting comes out well or not. Beyond doing our best in that moment, the result is, on some level, beyond our control. We are still the same person on the day when it comes out badly that we were on the day it came out well. That’s where I find myself coming back to the idea of acceptance.
As our ability to paint (or to do anything) increases, our standards go up as well, so any kind of objective goal is a constantly moving target. There will never be a point in time where everything we make comes out exactly the way we wish.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep learning and trying to improve as much as we can. I certainly intend to do all that, but I also want to work at accepting when things don’t come out the way I had hoped.
I used to hear the word “acceptance” and associate it with giving up…I pictured a voice saying “Well, I guess that’s just the way it is. Nothing we can do about it. Oh well.” Over time I’ve come to understand it more deeply as being the first step before taking any action, rather than an ending of action. If something doesn’t go my way, I need to accept it before moving forward with any kind of plan. If we try to bypass that acceptance, we wind up letting our negative voices cripple us and prevent us from moving forward.
In my own life, I want to practice acceptance when things come out well, as well as when they don’t. I want to take each experience as an honest assessment of where I am at this moment, knowing that there will always be some pieces that I am happier with than others, and that there will always be room to grow. I want to get off the emotional rollercoaster ride which comes from linking ego and self worth to our productivity, or the fruits of our actions. Instead, I want to focus on my efforts - to go in, give it my best, and leave aside the anxiety and frustrations which come along with focusing too much on the results. I want to be able to remind myself that I am enough, even if I don’t do a thing.