Ecstatic Task: The Daily Action
"You need not leave
your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen.
You need not even listen, simply wait. You need not
even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still,
and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to
you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll
in ecstasy at your feet."
-- Franz Kafka
a dark corner of her childhood house, her father sometimes
set up a makeshift laboratory. She used to sneak in and play
there, watching the bubbling liquids, measuring the weight
of her little hands on the scale. Officially, she wasn't allowed
to touch the instruments but her curiosity often got the better
of her. When her sisters were outside playing, she escaped
to the laboratory, a sanctuary of quiet, concentration and
Curie's mystical attitude towards the laboratory never changed.
Later when her laboratory was no more than a drafty basement,
and the work of isolating radioactive metals became arduous
and frustrating, this private place of work remained a pleasurable
retreat from a world of chatter and opinion. The conception
of the laboratory as a place of serious play, a continuous
present moment that could hold her captive with eternity's
questions, was born in her childhood by having a place to
go and then going there. Every day. It is this dark corner
of the basement reserved for private play that most often
gets disregarded as we 'grow up' to become professional artists.
We peek into the stairway from time to time, but are too busy
with the rooms above and their many inhabitants to descend.
We forget that it was this secret haven that fueled our curiosity
and imagination in the first place. In this world of information
overload and constant communication, it is easy to lose touch
with the habit of making time for curiosity.
seeks to help you build the private laboratory in which you
will reinvent your life. But the grand experiment will not
be over when, in eleven weeks, you read the last page of this
book. You'll have a box of new tools you can continue to use
to hammer out your future. Specifically, there are three things
I hope you will take away from this book: 1) a clearer vision
of what you really want and a commitment to that vision, 2)
a step-by-step plan for achieving that vision, and 3) a daily
process which develops strong, healthy work habits and keeps
your vision in sharp focus. Of all of these, the daily process
is by far the most crucial. For it is in the present moment
that creative work happens, and without a rigorous relationship
to today, the power of tomorrow is no more than a shadow puppet
casting elaborate darkness over all our endeavors. You may
use this book to get an inspirational shot in the arm but
the only way for it to have lasting value is by committing
to a daily process which will live beyond these pages.
you begin the building of your personal laboratory, I'm giving
you mine to borrow--just as Marie Curie's father unwittingly
lent his laboratory to his youngest daughter. Use the tools
in this chapter as your working laboratory for the next few
weeks. When you reach the eighth chapter, you will be asked
to assess how this laboratory is working for you and to begin
reshaping it into a new process tailored to your creative
The Daily Action
"Until one is committed,
there is hesitancy, that chance to draw back, always
ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative
(and creation), there is one elemental truth the ignorance
of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
that the moment one definitively commits oneself,
then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur
to help one that would never otherwise have occurred.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents
and meetings and material assistance, which no person
could have dreamed would have come one's way."
daily action is 15-minutes of a focused activity performed
every day at the same time of day. Choose an activity that
creates an empty space where your creativity can reassert
itself. Let the action be solitary and process-oriented. You
are giving yourself 15 minutes of emptiness within the blur
of living. Some examples of daily actions are dancing alone
in your living room, meditation, walking, writing in a journal,
drawing without purpose, singing improvisational melodies,
doing yoga, and gardening.
limit your imagination: invent your own daily action if you
feel the impulse. One of my students, Tracy, set up a little
altar to her grandmother who had recently died and whom she
missed terribly. Her grandmother had always been a great source
of inspiration and good advice, and Tracy didn't want to sever
this connection to her wisdom. Every morning before she began
work on her novel, she sat down and had a conversation with
her grandmother. Without making any claims to supernatural
communication, Tracy used these conversations to tap into
the part of herself that carried her grandmother's spirit
and wisdom. Tracy claimed the action filled her with hope
a jewelry designer and sound producer, dragged herself every
morning up her fire escape to sit on her roof and watch the
sun come up. Though she lived on a busy, urban street, her
rooftop musings gave her time with nature and a sense of quiet
before she began her day.
played his bongo drums--not complicated rhythms but a single
meditative beat. Anne kept a journal that she wasn't allowed
to write in--only draw, doodle, make lists and charts. Michael
walked around his neighborhood watching people and appreciating
architecture. Bob stretched to his favorite music. Rita kept
a stream-of-consciousness dream journal.
my interviews with established artists, many of them had their
own form of daily action. Mary Gaitskill, the novelist and
short story writer, engages in a type of meditation. Standing
quietly, she focuses on her breathing and observes her thoughts
comes into my mind and I follow it," she explained. "It's
like dreaming, only you're conscious. You can manipulate the
dream to see where it goes. It's not only calming but it reminds
me of the part of me that's always creating stories and images."
Her particular style of meditation doesn't function to empty
her mind or fill her with 'positive' thoughts; rather it is
a method of bringing her imagination into the fore and letting
it run wild.
choosing a daily action for yourself, avoid activities that
require you to respond to stimuli or follow a formula too
closely. Activities like organizing papers, exploring the
Internet, writing letters to old friends, reading, or reciting
prayers can be extremely useful, calming and life affirming
but they don't create the simple, empty space necessary to
bring your mind and your mind alone to the fore. Also, beware
of actions which can become too product-oriented and therefore
tarnished by anxiety about success or failure. Sometimes people
try to make the daily action do double-duty for them: they
try to finish an old project and disguise it as a daily action.
The clearer, simpler, and more enjoyable the daily action,
the more useful and edifying it will be in the long run. It
should be fun and above all easy in its actual execution.
If you have difficulty convincing yourself to do an easy action,
you will learn that you have issues with discipline, time,
concentration and solitude in their purest form. But if you
give yourself a daily action which is burdened by ambition
or complexity, you will always be able to say, "Well, I quit
my daily action because standing on my head and writing poetry
in iambic pentameter is really tough. I don't really have
problems with discipline or self-focus."
to think of the action as an empty receptacle which my imagination
inhabits for a few minutes a day. Conversely, when I begin
viewing it as a path to progress, I immediately start limiting
my playfulness, my enjoyment of the moment. For a while my
daily action was playing guitar. I couldn't play at all so
it was just making noise with the strings and singing weird
melodies. Then I began taking lessons and got really excited
about the possibility of playing real songs. I had assignments
from my teacher, exercises, and a feeling that I "should"
practice for the lesson. The daily action fell apart; it wasn't
easy anymore--it was another pursuit. It was just too charged
with meaning. The wonderful thing about your daily action
is that you should be able to do it as well today as you can
ten years from now.
some forms of meditation, the goal of the daily action is
not an empty mind. Blank time is enough. Let your mind go
where it wants to that day. In this empty place, allow yourself
to brainstorm, make wild plans, imagine the impossible, worry
about silly things. Let yourself stretch your dream muscle
and express your inner-whiner. Space out, tune in, rev up,
calm down. Let your mind do whatever it wants to do, while
your body does the action.
How Does the Daily Action Work?
"Don't say you're
going to stop biting your fingernails, say you're
going to stop biting one fingernail."
-- Sonny Krasner
you begin the process of reorienting your life, you'll probably
be asking yourself to build some new habits and to take certain
calculated risks. That means change. And change, as we all
know, isn't always comfortable. Maybe you don't know what
these changes are yet. But in the meantime you can begin to
prepare yourself. Don't try to change everything about your
life at once, first practice with the equivalent of one unbitten
fingernail, in tiny fifteen minute windows. You can look into
these windows every day and see yourself working, creating,
changing and getting used to change itself. Since fifteen
minutes is such an insignificant amount of time, you will
have a hard time convincing yourself you just can't squeeze
it in. It will set you in motion, even if you are not yet
sure of your direction.
of inspiration grow into full-scale creation through the twin
horses of persistence and imagination. The daily action exercises
both. Doing your daily action every day (seven days a week)
at the same time of day, will make self-discipline a habit.
As the famed motivational speaker Goethe once wrote, "Action
has power, magic and boldness in it." In this way, the daily
action reinforces the truth that tiny steps can scale giant
mountains. Once your action becomes incorporated into your
life, it will become a ritual imbued with its own power--the
power of your own energy, focus and joy. The ritual will become
an invaluable tool for sustaining and replenishing your creative
energy during hard times.
to providing you with structure and self-discipline, the daily
action strengthens your imagination by instituting emptiness
into your day. Like a loyal animal, the imagination will come
when it knows the door is open. Having an empty time for imaginative
wanderings will help you create clearer visions of your future
and a more intense experiencing of your desires. Maintaining
clarity of vision is an essential difference between those
who conceive and realize great ideas and those who simply
conceive great ideas. The person who makes it happen takes
time to make their ideas clear. As entrepreneur/designer Loretta
Staples says,"If you are clear about what you want, the world
responds with clarity."
the most important gift from the daily action is time to watch
your mind at work. If every day when you sit down to draw
or do yoga, you can only think about everything else you should
be doing, consider whether you're habitually telling yourself
that you should be somewhere else, doing something else. If
your inner voices chatter on and on about what your life is
going to be like ten years from now, you may learn that you
have a tendency to leap into the future without a handle on
the present. If you sit down to write in your journal and
your mind is a jumble of urges and feelings about loved ones,
you might ask yourself if you are resisting attention to your
in a state of intense uncertainty about your desires and your
direction, be patient with the daily action. Because more
than likely, during this brief respite from productivity,
you will be besieged with those annoyingly profound questions:
Who am I? How do I do this? Why am I in debt? What is to be
think, shouldn't I know already? Why should I be subjected
to these thoughts, over and over? Do the action anyway, make
it fun and playful for yourself. While worrying and hand wringing
very rarely yield new perspectives, the daily action can work
like magic. It is not my intention to keep you in a state
of continual navel gazing. It will however give you the opportunity
to think through these old questions about career and creativity
in the broad light of day.
some common questions about the daily action:
imagine just putting my work aside and saying, okay, now I'm
doing my daily action. What if the phone rings?
working, you're not doing your daily action and vice versa.
You can't do your daily action in your work space. Even if
you have the most lackadaisical temp job or the most flexible
home employment situation, you still may be interrupted by
a request, a phone call, a fax. And, of course, that's as
it should be. You're working! If you work at home where the
boundaries between work and life are utterly muddy, then create
a daily action like walking or gardening that gets you out
of your house.
the daily action should be fun but I don't think I have a
problem with indulging myself. How is it different from going
out for a fancy lunch?
its absolute core, I do think that the daily action is wonderfully
indulgent but in its form it is pure and rather ascetic. You
are not following your daily whim as to what you want to eat.
You are not taking time 'off'. You are staying present with
yourself to do one thing and only one thing, simply and cleanly,
every day at the same time of day. This demands focus and
energy as well as self-love.
fell in love so my sleeping schedule's kinda... unpredictable.
Sometimes I don't sleep at home. My work schedule is different
every day, the whole idea of doing it the same time of day
every day seems impossible.
you don't have to do your action at the same time but if you
do, the technique is both easier and more effective. Ideally,
you should do your action as soon as you wake up. Try attaching
it in time and place to your morning shower or brushing your
teeth. I imagine you make time for personal hygiene in your
life and don't think that's such a big deal. That's because
it's a habit. That's what your daily action must become: a
healthy fifteen-minute habit.
might choose an action that you can do without embarrassment
or hassle (sketching, journaling?) anywhere no matter whose
bed you wake up in.
a morning person. Can I do it at night?
a prejudice for morning daily actions because I think they
establish the priorities for your day. Each day has a symbolic
meaning. If you do your daily action every morning at the
beginning of the day you will silently teach your mind and
soul that your creative life comes first. Not your day job,
not your new lover's sleeping habits, and not the demands
of the phone. If you leave your action until the end of the
day when you're tired and craving free time, you may begin
to resent the daily action. On the other hand, there are some
people who wake up and become fiercely creative at night.
They don't mind shutting themselves away from their social
life to funnel their energy into something quiet and alone.
have enough time to do the things I need to do now. How am
I supposed to add another thing to my list which is totally
a challenge for some people's schedules. But for the most
part, the struggle to find time in the day for yourself alone
is going to show you just how much time you give away to other
people or projects that you really don't want or need. Understanding
how you use or abuse your own time offers great insights and
is likely to give you enormous motivation to change your patterns
and carve out some time for this very important transition
that you're undertaking.
Embarking on a Career Change:
Emotions and Resistance
"Whatever you can do or dream you can,
begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in
time you undertake a project as large and important as changing
the focus of your life or your work, deep psychological issues
can arise which exacerbate an already fragile process. One
of the best things we can protect ourselves in advance is
to know that these emotions may surface and be prepared for
them to work themselves through our minds the way a cold virus
works itself through our bodies -- ultimately leaving us stronger
and immune to this particular strain of affliction.
feelings may not express themselves through common symptoms.
You may not consciously think, Gee, I'm angry at my friends
for making fun of my new project, but you may suddenly feel
a great aversion to answering your phone or listening to messages.
(This may be a reasonable way of dealing with obnoxious friends
but you could undermine yourself by not returning the calls
from those people who do give you support.) You may find yourself
eating strangely or your sleeping patterns altered. You may
not consciously feel fear, for instance, but suddenly you
won't want to get out of your bed in the morning. You may
actually think you're coming down with something physical.
You may suddenly need ten hours a night or suffer from insomnia.
had just managed to reorganized his schedule to rehearse for
three hours every morning for his upcoming solo performance,
suddenly felt the urge to sleep nine hours a night even though
for his entire life he had been happy with seven.
I sleeping so much? It's ridiculous," he exclaimed.
the first thing you do every morning?" I asked.
up, and I rehearse; I memorize lines."
years he had managed to create solo performance that didn't
require rehearsal. He hated to rehearse because it heightened
his fears around the quality of the work, and his lack of
acting training. Now this show--which involved a lot of character
monologues--was forcing him to change his daily habits. Though
he was being "disciplined" and productive, the fear remained
and was being expressed through his overwhelming desire to
sleep. While his mind had triumphed, his body didn't really
want to get up and begin this newly forming habit. When we
spoke after a month, he had accustomed himself to the new
schedule and was actually enjoying the rehearsal process.
He also had returned to his typical sleeping patterns. If
he had given too much meaning to his pseudo-depressive symptoms,
he might have been tempted to quit, which is just what the
fear-driven part of his brain/body wanted him to do.
is healthy. It keeps us from jumping off buildings and saying
smug things to violent drunks. But fear also works against
us. Fear colludes with our most conservative self and allows
us to stop before we try, dismiss before we think, mock before
we imagine. We've all seen it in others; it is so easy to
perceive when you watch a friend refuse to take advantage
of some remarkable opportunity, simply out of fear. But they
don't often say: I'm too afraid. They say: I don't know if
I'm ready or I'm just too busy right now.
heart of their fear is the message:
If I try
to get something really wonderful, I'll have to screw up everything
that is already just okay.
has this voice inside them, it's a voice of survival and ancient
necessity. Beware of its power. The voice will arise when
it is totally inappropriate and you are simply thinking through
ideas, not threatening your livelihood or future stability
in any way. Whether you are a relentlessly spontaneous artiste
(who has never thought of making a long-term plan) or a terminally
responsible professional (for whom the idea of refocusing
your life towards creative interests is really scary), the
voice of fear can wreak havoc on your dreams before you ever
take the slightest risk.
feelings of fear arise while working through this process,
try the following: