Eckhart Tolle on being an artist

If life were enough, we wouldn't need art.

Lately I’ve been having a creative block. But not just the normal, “I don’t know what to work on” block. This one has been more existential. In the past few years I have been reading (and practicing) the work of Eckhart Tolle, and I often think about how his philosophy relates to being an artist.

In essence, here are some of his teachings:

Don’t dwell in the past
Don’t fixate on the future.
Always center yourself in the present moment.

The constant stream of thoughts in your mind is your ego, trying to assert itself.

The ego often deals in petty thoughts and ideas.
The ego strengthens itself through these petty thoughts and ideas.

Your ego is not “you.”
“You” exist on a higher plane than your ego.

I have found that since practicing these concepts and letting go of my ego based thoughts, I have more joy and satisfaction in my life. My relationships have improved, and I feel more liberated. But the downside of feeling liberated is that you start to ask yourself, what else do I need to let go of? What are the things in my life that serve my ego, and not my higher self?

I started to wonder if calling myself an “artist,” is just a label that my ego wants me to have. Perhaps my ego thinks that the label of “artist” makes me special. I always identify with the label, even when I spend large swaths of time not producing anything creative. Do I even like making art in the first place? Would I feel liberated if I simply cut ties with the label of “artist?” My fear is that if I cut ties with it, just say no to art, I would feel empty. Life would be pointless.

This was the storm brewing in my head when I happened to listen to the Creative Peptalk podcast episode with Austin Kleon. It was somewhat inspiring and interesting. But then he said something that made me stop dead in my tracks. I was walking down the street and I had to physically stop and write down what he said.

“If life were enough, we wouldn’t make art.”

This simple sentence was exactly the answer I was looking for. Forget about my “ego” and whatever labels it wants. The reason I feel driven to make art is that life isn’t enough. It never has been. This is probably true for many people, not just artists. The feeling that “life isn’t enough,” is what drives us to do all manner of things that have nothing to do with our survival; cooking, traveling, camping, gardening, watching Marvel movies, or playing fantasy football. For me that “thing” happens to be making art.

The way to bring it back to Tolle’s teachings is to ask yourself, do you do these “things” to serve your ego, or do you do them because they bring joy into your life?

Also from Eckhardt Tolle:

“All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness”

When I create, I try to stay in that place of no-mind and inner stillness. It’s a joyful place. A place where I am immersed in the present moment, and not dwelling on past and future.

side note: I had to google the phrase with quotes: “If life were enough, we wouldn’t make art,” because I was so sure that someone must have said this before Austin Kleon, as it seems so profoundly true. As it turns out, I found one person who actually said it. The poet, Mark Strand, mentioned it to his graduate students in class one day.