I’ve been thinking about how artists need to train like warriors. Or like athletes. Or like monks. I was inspired by one of Steven Pressfield’s excellent posts (https://stevenpressfield.com/2021/12/training-turning-pro/).
If we want to become the best artists we can be, we have to commit to the path of training, practice, and performance the way a spiritual warrior does.
I think of the Shaolin monks and their rigorous daily regimes, training in kung-fu, meditation, and Buddhist philosophy until body and mind are so highly skilled that they can accomplish extraordinary feats.
As artists, we need intense commitment and diligence. The fire to develop our skills. The will to create the inner and outer conditions most conducive to inspiration and to the hard and beautiful work of creation. And radical honesty about our strengths and weaknesses.
We need to gift ourselves the mentorship, classes, peer groups, and feedback that will foster our best work. We need to actively work to grow our creative abilities and not rest on our laurels.
Although cultivating a spirit of play, openness, and experimentation is vitally important in a thriving creative life, here I wish to focus on this aspect of training like a warrior. Why?
Because I see how easy it is for me to enter my studio with little plan of how I will use the time and wind up frittering away those precious hours. Letting myself mess around and discover happy accidents in my work (the source of much great art) is a key part of the process of creation. But I can also lose my way, and, in the process, lose my energy and joy for my art too.
I see how easy it is for me to let years go by, making new work, but never really growing as an artist. Churning out drafts of poems and not perfecting them. Having too little to show for my efforts because I lack a plan. I keep relying on my strengths and ignoring my blind spots. Or I dabble in this and that without gaining mastery or completing projects. This doesn’t feel good.
When I read Steven Pressfield’s post, a light bulb went on in me. I realized: If you wish to be as great as you can be in your art form (which I do), then training like a warrior will be essential.
The path of mastery requires focus, a plan (even though life is always full of surprises!), healthy habits, and determination. We need a way to track our progress and stay on course.
A professional basketball player doesn’t go to practice and just dribble and shoot at random, based on whatever she feels like doing that day. She has a coach, a regimen, goals, and measurements of success. She studies other athletes and learns from them. She chooses what she eats, reads, watches, and does with her spare time carefully to support her being in the best shape, mentally and physically, to perform at her utmost.
That may sound rigid, but it needn’t be. It is vital to keep the joy and play alive in the process. One of the best basketballs teams of the past ten years, the Golden State Warriors, have joy as their guiding ethos.
So, even these intense training regimens can be a source of delight and grant a wind of positive purpose and rich meaning to our lives. If we want to truly grow as artists and give our best gifts to the world, then we need to adopt a similar approach to the professional athlete or the spiritual warrior.
Our whole lives can be structured to support our flourishing creatively. To give us time, energy, and space to create our best work. To bring in inspiration, ideas, new experiences, and new learning to nourish us. To study the lives and works of other artists carefully and deeply.
We can pay attention to what fosters our best art, and feed our souls with that. We can give ourselves assignments—or receive them from teachers or peers we trust—that stretch us to grow in new directions. We can train our bodies and minds to be in service to our art, and work to limit the negative thoughts, behaviors, and habits that would hinder that.
In our training, we practice to master the skills of our art form. We are willing to work hard and be uncomfortable at times. We also know we need to cultivate joy in the process, in order to keep going, and because our love and joy must infuse what we do for it to truly shine. And because we want to enjoy our lives.
We set goals and make plans to reach them. We know where we are headed and how we will use our creative time and our lives to best advantage.
We train like spiritual warriors, in deep devotion to our art.