In his new book Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck, Buddhist teacher David Nichtern offers his advice to creatives on how to make a living doing what you love. Here, he talks with Lion’s Roar’s Andrea Miller about accessing our creativity and the spiritual side of money.
Andrea Miller: I’m a little uncomfortable putting the words “spirituality” and “making a buck” together in the same sentence.
David Nichtern: You’re not the only one. Remember, it was Jesus Christ who threw the moneylenders out of the temple. On the other hand, the millennia old split between spirituality and livelihood may be an obsolete paradigm.
What about having a healthy relationship with livelihood as a dimension of our “spiritual” well-being? That’s what Buddha taught. Right livelihood is one important aspect of the noble eightfold path toward enlightenment. Why can’t we have a wholesome approach toward livelihood and money? Money is just a piece of paper. We add all the meaning. Money is actually a symbol of the interdependence and exchange between all of us. Greed and jealousy are add-ons.
From another point of view, many of us are uncomfortable monetizing “spirituality”—yoga and meditation and such. But we have no problem paying for every other form of education and training. Nobody faults a guitar teacher or a plumber for charging for their services and time. Teaching meditation and yoga is a service. People train hard to master these disciplines and pass them along.
Is it possible to have spiritual aspirations without falling into spiritual materialism? If so, how?
Totally possible. Spiritual materialism is about buying into false spiritual credentials and parading them as actual accomplishment. I firmly believe that practice is a way to strengthen our positive qualities and uproot some of our negative habitual patterns. If we stay humble and grounded, spiritual materialism has no oxygen.
Most creative types find they must have a day job in order to support themselves. What do we need to understand in order to actually support ourselves while working in the arts?
Ah, an important question. In my book Creativity, Spirituality & Making a Buck, I talk about this issue a lot. The key point is that if your creative offering is going to be your livelihood, you need to understand the business aspect of being a “professional” creative. So that’s an important decision — is your creative offering a “passion,” a “hobby,” or is it your “gig”? Business and livelihood have important parameters, which we then need to understand and develop, like marketing, sales, admin, and product development.
In order to be successful in a creative field, we need to be able to accurately appraise our strengths and weaknesses, but so many of us overestimate or underestimate our abilities. How can we learn to make accurate appraisals of our abilities?
Ha! The great middle way—not too tight and not too loose. We call low self-esteem “poverty mentality” and over-estimating our capacity “arrogance.” The truth has to be between those two extremes!
As creatives, we are bound to get lots of feedback from others, and it can be confusing. But there is a great lojong (mind-training) slogan in Buddhism—“of the two judges, choose the principle one”—which means that we have to take in all the feedback, take the best and leave the rest, and at the end of the day, take our own counsel as to what needs to be cultivated and what needs to be discarded. So it’s up to us to appraise our abilities. Of course, along the way it can be helpful to have trusted elders and mentors give some skillful feedback. It’s like on that TV show where they ask, “Is that your final answer?” and you can make one phone call before you say yes or no. That phone call is part of the human equation.
Sometimes during the creative process, we feel “in the zone.” We’re totally engrossed, and what we’re working on just flows. At other times, it’s a much more painful process. Do you have any advice for making those in-the-zone moments happen more frequently or for longer periods of time?
My first thought is to strengthen your practice of meditation as a way to create the right atmosphere for the “zone” to appear. We are actually living in the zone all the time. This is the zone, but we don’t recognize it when our head is full of discursive thoughts and stress and anxiety. So I highly recommend some kind of discipline of working with the mind apart from any tangible productivity.
There are also concepts like non-dual awareness and tendrel (auspicious coincidence), that can help frame this space, but of course when you’re in it, it’s kind of unconditional and timeless, so we can only point to the experience. Sometimes shock or humor or a sudden shift of awareness can reveal that we have actually been in or right near this kind of space the whole time.
On the other hand, what do we do when we’re far from the zone, not feeling particularly connected or spontaneous? As a creative, we always have the flip side of the coin, which is leaning in, discipline, exertion, effort, patience, hard work, etc. These are all good qualities. We can’t just always be waiting around for a rainbow. The rainbow is always there but sometimes we have to create the right causes and conditions to actually see it.