Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How to Find Your Path as an Artist

To take action, or not to take action, that is the question.

In many fields, the career path is clearly defined and marked out by others: first, get your engineering degree, then apply for a job at XYZ company, etc.

In the arts, each of us must make her own way. This is one of the hardest things about being an artist – and the most wonderful.

Critical to success and continuing as an artist is knowing when to act and when not to act. Otherwise, you can get burned out doing useless things that lead nowhere. Or stuck in writer’s block. Or trapped in indecision about what the best next step is.

Wu Wei - the art of knowing when or when not to act

Knowing when to act and when not to act is the art of wu wei. Wu wei is a Taoist name for something I have been learning to practice for twenty years.

My husband Ian told me a story that illustrates wu wei very well.

Ian is martial artist, student of mysticism, and my resident expert and source of knowledge of pretty much everything (in other words, I don’t need a reference library, I have Ian). He’s also my creative partner. Here’s his wu wei story:

Once Upon a Time...

In ancient China, a young apprentice runs from the fields into his master’s house, where his master is beginning to prepare the afternoon tea. The apprentice enters the room, shouting, “Quick, master, a brigand is coming!” The master quietly continues his tea preparations. The apprentice jumps up and down in front of the master. “Master! Did you not hear me? A brigand is coming. We must defend ourselves!”

The master does not respond, but continues his tea making. The young apprentice panicks. “Master! He is coming!” He runs to the door and looks. “He’s almost upon us! We have to do something! He'll kill us!” The master says, “It is not time yet. Now I am making tea.” The brigand bursts through the door, arms ablaze. The master lifts up a knife that had been on the table, and turns to the apprentice. “Now is the time to act,” he says, effortlessly stopping the brigrand with a single gesture with his knife.

Spilling Tea: Trying to control my fate

Wu Wei for me is a practice. “Listening for the right action” mostly means waiting until an action feels right to me, before I do it. At the moment, this process still doesn’t feel very comfortable. I am like the apprentice, who now trusts his master enough not to run around in a panic, but is not yet able to calmly prepare tea instead. I might be able to prepare tea, because that’s the small action that is before me, right now, today, but there’s a good part of me still yelling, “They’re coming!”

So I’m still spilling tea, in other words. But I’m waiting for right action, too.

Working with the Flow

Because wu wei means letting the universe take care of how your dreams unfold, while you take care of the small detail that is before you, needing to be done right now. Then you are working with, not against, the flow of the universe.

For the past year, I have been consciously practicing wu wei. For the past year, I have started to finally achieve the artistic success that I had been struggling to reach for decades.

Doing unnecessary things blocks the flow of the universe. It blocks the flow of your own creativity by exhausting you for no reason.

Listening to the Resonance

Listening to the resonance is important. It means not rushing to the next step before considering the fact that the previous step is done. Listening to the resonance doesn’t have to take long; it might even just be for the space of a single breath.

Listening to the resonance helps you be ready to look for and see the next small right action, instead of just jumping from one thing you think of doing to the next.

Instead, you feel for the next small right action.

I am walking that clear path. I can feel it. Sometimes inside I’m still yelling, “They’re coming!” but I’m on the path. By practicing wu wei at each step.


Wikipedia: Wu Wei http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_wei

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (http://www.theartistsway.com/) teaches art as a practice. Highly recommended.

Eckhart Tolle: http://www.eckharttolle.com/eckharttolle teacher of presence: how to be here now. His "A New Earth" is the best book I ever read on the subject - and I've read a lot of books on the subject.


  1. Wow, this is a fantastic blog! I had no idea I was missing out on something so important... I'm off to check out your previous blogs

    BTW, that photo is absolutely fantastic!

  2. Vanessa,
    This is a wonderful story and reminder to slow down long enough to know and feel when something is right.

    It seems so easy to either act too quickly or in a panic or because we think we "should" or to go the opposite route and get paralyed in fear without taking any action.

    I have also been practicing the idea of taking care of things in the moment but it is definitely a practice in which I need constant reminding.

  3. What a beautifully written piece, Vanessa! And so poignant and resonant for me to read this right now. An exquisite reminder!

    As for the photo of Ian, all I can say is wu wei!

    More more! I look forward to more !

  4. Vanessa, you're writing about the very things I'm exploring. Thank you, I'll be checking your blog for questions, answers and inspiration often.

  5. Brilliant, Vanessa, and oh-so timely. Many thanks for this clarifying gift.

  6. Thank you for this, Vanessa - it's so clear and real!

  7. Great piece, Vanessa.... Thanks! Like you, I've been focusing on accepting the flow for the past year, and the culimination seems to be success winning work I've been dreaming about for a long time. Amazing how letting go brings things to us!