One of the most misunderstood syllogisms of our time has to be: ‘the universe provides’. Those who accept it as a special exchange with the Great Provider take up a more challenging deal where we are trying for a constant relationship with the cosmos. Those who accept the journey also eschew magical thinking, or a knowing wink at the dole, or the myth of natural talent.
In exchange, the universe provides enough glimpses of our goals met and scored to keep us hurrying along, trying and re-trying, for another glimpse of mastery.
Here’s the rub: if you want that engagement and you choose what Julia Cameron calls ‘the artist’s way’, can you do it without expectation? This doubles your dharma and makes the journey even more provocative: you may have to go for extended periods with the existential mud dragging on your heels, and still stick to your practice.
If practice starts to make you feel low – and it can do that because it is so slow, demanding, and only occasionally yields a noticeable reward – you can reflect on this small sweetener: persistence deepens understanding and all along the way bright, heartening insights can occur. (You can also try this, by the way: shake your head briskly, give your scalp a good, rough scratch (scrambling your brains, I call it), stre-e-e-e-tch your whole self – now smile and return to your practice and see if your atomic being is jingling again.)
Of course, if persistence feels too boring, you can at any time throw the whole process away and do something else … but then you may deprive yourself of the chance to see what would have happened if you’d only kept on keeping on.
To ‘keep on keeping on’ means holding faith with Jung’s insight: “Change takes place at glacial speed” … but it rest assured, it does take place – change is still the only constant.
As an example, a woman I met a couple of years ago was suddenly widowed and then discovered her late partner had mismanaged their joint funds, leaving her virtually penniless.
She’d been born with artistic talent, but “reality always got in the way of the dream”. She had followed the pragmatic journey of a working wife and mother, always imagining – as we do – that one day she’d have the space and financial security to develop her gift. Now she was over fifty, standing alone on very shaky ground.
The next couple of years were challenging, sometimes frightening, but she gradually righted her ship. On the voyage, she discovered she now had one precious, wholly-owned asset: her time.
Never in her adult life had she had so much of time to spare – nor been so aware of how finite it is – it seems for reasons both biological and cultural, that the gods do not permit us this insight until we reach a certain age.
At first the woman struggled to manage this abundance of extra time. All to often, loneliness came to fill the space, and with it a loss of faith in the singular miracle of life. Then one Saturday afternoon a friend invited her to a life-drawing class in the city. She felt the charcoal’s grittiness on paper, her eyes began talking to her hand about lines, light, shade … two hours later she ‘came to’, as if she had woken from an hypnotic trance. Twelve drawings she had executed, tentative and rough, and the time had whipped through her, charged with extraordinary energy. That night, looking at her work, she made a pact between Self and Universe – she vowed that for one solid year she would do a drawing every day.
I met this woman at the end of her 365-day drawing practice, and at the start of her Master’s Degree in Visual Art. After so much consistent focus on her internal and external universe, she had produced an extraordinary body of work. Not only because the final pieces were so strong and persuasive – but because you could track, from the first tentative sketches, the gathering of her energy. She was a storm of productivity, a living evocation of “energy out, energy in”.
“I will never be comfortable again,” she told me, “From now until I die, I will have to acknowledge the stone in my shoe and let it drive me forward. And be at peace with that.”
As we practice breathing, we can understand the foundation value of practice itself: with each new breath, nothing special happens … except the miraculous provision of the next inhale. With each new breath, another chance to express your gift, and gradually we build, expression upon expression, until we understand:
the only provision the universe makes for us is the next breath, and we have no other choice but to keep taking it.