Sunday, March 7, 2010

Learning From Those Who Are Different

Combat/Martial? Guru/Teacher? Entertainer/Artist?

I often learn about and get clarity about myself from looking at other people, especially other people who are doing the same things I do, and noticing the differences between us. Some of the most helpful insights I've gained into my own life have come from observing other people who teach T'ai-Chi, or who write and perform songs, but do it in a way that's different from the way I do it. Usually, it starts with a feeling that someone else's approach is different from mine in a way that I either don't like or that doesn't feel right to me. Then I search my mind and heart to find out what it is that's different.

For instance, I once rubbed elbows with a mixed martial artist cage match type fighter in the park where I teach. I'd always considered T'ai-Chi to be a functional martial art but it was clear from talking and doing just a bit of sparring with this guy that he could take me apart in short order.

At first it was unsettling and a bit threatening, but on further reflection, I arrived at a simple, but for me, profound clarification. I realized that in my own practice, I draw a distinction between "martial training" and "combat training".

To me, "martial" means "body protective" patterns of being and movement. This includes being able to "protect" one's self from things like aging, gravity, tripping, falling, energetic attacks, illness, and to some extent physical attacks.

"Combat training", to me, is about fighting. It is about taking whatever principles you are developing to the level where you are able to use them in full speed full contact fighting.

I realized that I love martial training games, (The entire T'ai-Chi system can be seen as levels of martial training games. Each game invites your resistance to unforced balance to the surface and then, hopefully, safely invites you to let it go.) I also realized that I was not interested in combat training which at my age (52 as of this writing) was too risky and not suited to my nature anyway. I respect combat training quite a bit, and I am not putting it down in any way, it's just not for me.

I also realized that being able to defend myself physically is a useful skill and also confidence building, so I take my martial training as close to the edge of combat training as I can without actually crossing that line. I also train a bit in my imagination, hypothetically, to help my mind/body be a bit more prepared in case I ever have to cross that line involuntarily.

And most importantly, I learned that I am not prepared to really fight. I don't think anyone is who doesn't practice fighting. So I don't delude myself that because I can deliver a powerful punch, or deflect a another's powerful punch in a training game, that this will somehow transfer into a real life encounter with a skilled opponent who is mobile, doesn't want to get hit, and really wants to hit me back! I like the martial training games of T'ai-Chi for what they teach me about unforced balance. And all of this I learned from hanging out with a guy in the park one afternoon.

I learned a similar lesson from encountering a teacher of a related discipline back in Seattle. This person was really skilled and gifted at his art, both as a practitioner and teacher, but something about him didn't sit right with me. Again, on further reflection I began to see what it was.

He focused a lot on cultivating a certain mystique around him. He would look into people's eyes in a kind of seductive way and talk about "deepening the connection". What I realized is that he was working what I call the
"guru vibe", the spell that says, "Don't trust yourself, trust me."

I compared this approach with my own teacher's (Andy Dale, Seattle, WA) and it just didn't sit well with me. I realized that I, like Andy, was more interested in the art itself than in being "someone" in the community around the art. I realized that I liked working "in the trenches", that is, doing the day-in-day-out work of helping people learn the art, as opposed to being the "star" or workshop leader who travels the country cultivating fans and/or worshippers.

It was really a key fork in the road for me because I really could have gone down the "guru" path too. I'm wounded and have insecurities like everyone else, and the narcissistic "fix" of that worship had its appeal. But from watching this other teacher I could clearly see that this "fix" was temporary and never held very long. It needed constant reenforcement. Since my interactions with this teacher, I've seen this in other "guru" types again and again. It may be a valid path, I don't know for sure, but I do know it's not mine.

So again, I owe a real debt to this teacher. From watching him and checking in with myself, I developed teaching principles that have served me well for almost 20 years now.

My latest revelation along these lines involves being involved in writing, recording and performing music. By looking at the way other people are doing this, I've evolved a more and more satisfying and truthful way of relating to "the business". These observations led to my
"five year experiment" of giving my music away as freely as I can and seeing what comes back freely. (See my site:

One of the most helpful distinctions I've made lately is the one between being an artist versus being an entertainer.

These days the words "art" and "artist" are used pretty casually. The word "artist" is sometimes used to signify high quality work of any sort. Just do anything really well and someone will start to call you an "artist". Anyone who makes music is called a "recording artist". Show some cleverness or skill in your work? You're an "artist". There's the "art" of the deal, the "art" of cooking, the "art" of negotiation, the "art" of blogging, and so on.

Personally, I think the word is fast becoming meaningless. I hope not. To me, being "artistic" does not make one an artist. Nor does being skilled or good at something. Nor does being involved in making music, films or paintings. I don't think every activity is automatically an "art".

When I look at people involved in creative work, I see a spectrum with "artist" at one end and "entertainer" at the other. The more of an artist a person is, in my view, the more they are motivated by the need to express themselves, especially their sense of beauty and value, in some kind of satisfying work. The more of an entertainer a person is, the more they are motivated by receiving the approval of other people. To me, an artist wants and needs to express herself. An entertainer wants and needs applause.

I don't believe that being an artist is even a choice really. If there is a choice, it is whether or not to put energy into refining what one already is. Being an artist to me, is more of a "condition", like diabetes. It's something that needs to be taken care of or it will kill you. It is something you have to do. It is not something you do in order to get famous, or be liked, or worshipped, or loved. It is something you need to do in order to be yourself, be whole, or not go crazy.

It is really more compulsion than career choice. It comes from the inside out, and you would never dream of quitting because other people didn't like what you were doing. You would only quit if you didn't like what you were doing. An artist can enjoy appreciation. An artist can enjoy the spotlight. But in my opinion, if you are an artist, you put up with the spotlight of public attention, you don't seek it.

The way I see it, entertainers are different. They seek the spotlight. They need the spotlight. If they can get in the spotlight, they do it. If the spotlight moves elsewhere, they move where it's going. An artist lives to express emotion. An entertainer lives to elicit emotion. An artist is alive and wants to impress that life on some medium or other. An entertainer "comes alive" when people are enjoying what they do. Entertainers are often wounded people, generally unsatisfied, discontent, always hungry for more, more and more attention. Their life comes from the outside in. Artists live from the inside out. If no one likes an artist's work, they may be disappointed. If no one likes an entertainer's work, they are devastated.

To me it's all about motivation. Why are you doing what you're doing? If it's to express, you're an artist. If it's to get attention and love, you're an entertainer. Obviously, this is not "the truth" or a hard and fast division. It's just a way of looking at people that's been helpful to me in understanding myself. I see it as a spectrum with most people not purely in one category or the other. And while I put myself more at the artist end of the spectrum, I want to be clear that I mean no disrespect to people who are primarily entertainers. I don't think what I'm calling "artists" are better or exist on a "higher plane" than entertainers. To me they are just different. I love entertainers, especially when I want to be entertained. I'm just not one myself.

At the far end of the artist side of the spectrum, I'd put people like Vincent Van Gogh and Franz Kafka, who hardly sold anything during their lives and continued with their work because they had to. It was in their nature. At the far end of the entertainer side of the spectrum, I'd put people like Michael Jackson and Madonna, who seem to thrive in the spotlight and virtually nowhere else. By the way, I don't like all of Van Gogh's paintings or Kafka's writing, and I do like some of Michael Jackson's and Madonna's songs. But through the lens of the artist/entertainer spectrum, I'd put Vincent and Franz at one end and Michael and Madonna at the other. That's just my opinion.

Again, to me it's all about motivation. You can paint to get love and be an entertainer. You can be an "entertainer", like a stand-up comic, but be doing it to express your heart, whether people like your work or not, and be an artist. The key question to me is, What do you love more, your work or having other people like your work?

Clearly, an artist can enjoy appreciation and the spotlight. We all have egos, wounds and the need for validation and approval. An artist can make compromises to move in the direction of what other people will like in order to make a living and feed his family. But if you love being loved more than you love your work, to me, you are an entertainer.

Again I want to be clear about this, I love entertainers and I love being entertained. But in my book, for an entertainer to be an artist, she has to love her work more than being loved for doing it. She has to be motivated primarily by the quality of her work rather than the quality of the response to her work.

I learned all of this from watching people who, at least in my mind, are primarily entertainers, and trying to figure out why their approach was different from mine. From watching entertainers, I learned that I am primarily an artist, not an entertainer. I am not necessarily a great or even good one, (that's for others to decide), and certainly not a successful one in the eyes of the world, but for better or worse, I am an artist. Always have been, always will be.

I've learned so much from watching people who do what I do in a different way, and then figuring out as exactly as you can, what it is that's different and why it's not right for me. I recommend it highly.