Several years ago, I was in the habit of writing music and performing it whenever I had the opportunity. I had been recording a solo album for more than a year when I gave up and decided I should “leave it to the professionals.”
Why? Because I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. I also told myself I didn’t have time to work any harder on it. Even though I considered my talent to be more than some people’s and less than others, I focused on the part I believed was less, and quit.
The same thing happened with my writing. Forty-six years old and still no publishing deal. Might as well give up that dream, too. What’s the point?
In 1999, an author named M.J. Ryan, a San Francisco-based writer, released a book mapping out the absolute dissection of gratitude and the numerous ways it can improve one’s life. Based on the theory that gratitude is the mother of joy, it can make you feel younger and better, and promote health and eradicate worry and draw people to us. Most importantly, it offers the cure for perfectionism, one of gratitude’s staunch enemies.
Too often, instead of feeling grateful for our gifts, we fixate on our short-comings and our lack of whatever it is we believe we lack. We strive for perfection, an enormously ambiguous concept that has no ceiling and no true gauge. It’s all in our minds.
About 20 pounds ago, that same incessant buzzing in my ear about not being good enough (good enough for what, I don’t know) helped me quit teaching belly dancing, something else that brought me and many other people joy and a fun physical outlet.
Recently, I began having the same thoughts about my artwork. The chatter in my head went something like this, You have bills to pay. Stop goofing around with these silly little projects and stick with writing. It’s what you’ve been doing longest. Everything else is just a distraction from your real work.
Now I know that was my Inner Critic attempting to distract me from being myself. I was born to express myself in many ways. I’m a free spirit who does free spirit things. I have urges that I must follow that may not make sense to an audience. Yet, in the process, I have done the opposite of feel gratitude: I have battered myself with nonsensical perfectionism.
But no more! Right now, I am grateful for the breeze of wisdom that blew through my door one day. My eyes were closed when I had a waking dream of an elephant, specifically, his eye. It was such a beautiful, clear and profound vision that I thought I might try to paint it, though of course, my Inner Critic was right there saying, Too bad you’re not a real artist.
I had grown up watching my mother paint from her imagination, but I didn’t believe I could do it. Since I also couldn’t ignore my urge to paint, I relied on other people’s imagination in photos.
I had actually started a small canvas by painting it black and layering it with light strokes of white paint that I assumed would be an abstract since I didn’t believe I was capable of anything else. As if abstract art is dreck! What would Kandinsky say?
About an hour later, I set myself up to work on that same canvas. I felt anxious at first and my hand was shaking, until I began thinking, “No judgment. Just do it.”
After about 10 minutes, in the final quick and suddenly confident strokes as I held the paint brush in my hand, I realized I had made true contact with my inner child. I was giggling at the result, which was exactly what I had seen it in my imagination---the elephant’s eye. Amazing! I even did a little happy dance like kids do. A child plays and doesn’t judge herself for playing a certain way because fortunately, people don’t develop Inner Critics until later in life.
I was so proud of myself for incorporating mindfulness into the practice of painting. I became infinitely grateful, and decided to completely let go of the usual anxiety surrounding the results and relish the process. That is, unless it was a fluke.
Just to test it, I took another canvas and a few deep breaths and repeated, “No judgment.” I stood firm in my new belief that if every stroke is perfect and each layer creates an expression of my imagination, I could also paint the elephant’s face. I was amazed again. It was not a fluke, but rather a creativity nurturing mindset that I can use again and again.
Then it hit me. What if I used that mindset in every other aspect of life? What if I did everything that brings me joy without judgment? Imagine what I could accomplish and all the fun I’d have in the process.
A quote from Ryan’s book makes my point. She writes, "Gratitude helps us to return to our natural state of joyfulness, where we notice what's right instead of what's wrong. It makes us feel complete, that we have everything we need, at least in this moment."
Of course, this mindset is a work in progress. I still don’t believe I can juggle or skateboard. But I can tell you the journey is much more fun when I attempt anything with gratitude for the courage to express myself, whatever innate talent I’ve been blessed with and the ability to choose joy over judgment.