Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #150 How to Compose Yourself
About this episode

The usual definition is to calm down and control yourself, but Martha has a very different meaning in mind, and she’s exploring it in this episode of The Gathering Room: How to Compose Yourself. Tune in for the full episode to learn more of Martha’s insights about the beauty and importance of creating “for no reason” and to participate in her guided meditation on imperfection, impermanence, and the essence of creativity.

How to Compose Yourself

Martha Beck:

Today’s topic is called How to Compose Yourself. And of course it’s got a double… Oh, somebody’s here from Bucharest, and from Dublin, and from Kenya. Wow. I always start and then I see extra people coming in from all these wild new places and that makes me so happy. All right, so I want to talk about how to compose yourself. Now, the typical English use for that phrase, compose yourself, is calm down, be composed. But the way I mean it is that it’s as in composing music, that you actually… You can calm yourself down, but at the same time you are literally making yourself, you are composing the life, the being that you are. I think that’s why we’re here on this line of time, even though I believe our consciousness probably exists outside of time. But in this line of time, we go from being these little plasma pets who weigh about seven pounds and can’t do much, to beings who have the imagination to create almost anything.

And by creating almost anything, we create a new creature that is creating, you see what I mean about this? If not, you’ll see in a minute. I got the idea because I was painting. I finished my book, and although I stared at my computer screen so hard, I can only see things that exactly the level my computer screen is away from my face. I still wanted to get back to my drawing. The book is about anxiety and creativity and how in order to stay out of anxiety, use the parts of your brain that are necessary for creativity, because they don’t work at the same time. The parts that imagine all kinds of terrible things in the past and in the future, especially in the future, can’t function while you’re literally in the process of creation and here and now, using that right hemisphere. So one of the things I did, you may remember this, a year ago I spent an entire month doing nothing but stuff that would definitely call upon my right hemisphere.

And I had the best time, oh my God I had the best month I remember since I was a child. And in fact I felt like a child. I felt frisky and joyful and full of energy and I wanted to learn everything and I was just… The one stipulation was that I had to create and I had to create for no reason except to create and to see what the act of creating did to me. And what I found is that the act of creation creates us. And if you’re just really jumping in and playing with creativity the way you were allowed to when you were a child, it composes, it creates a very happy, very flexible, very adventurous creature.

And it was all art for me. Art, art, art. I thought I’ll start with art, with drawing and painting and I’ll go from there. Well, I never went any place from there, I just kept drawing and painting, which is what I did my entire childhood. So it’s not that surprising, but I had to put it aside to actually write the book. So I’ve been waiting a year to go back to doing what I do creatively. These are my paints behind me, paintings behind me. So those of you who are in Australia, especially you, Melbourners, I got a chance to go to your beautiful country, your beautiful city in August and September and there was a certain scene on… What is it, Ro?

Speaker 2:                    Brunswick Street.

Martha Beck:                Brunswick Street, Brunswick?

Speaker 2:                    Brunswick Street.

Martha Beck:                Brunswick Street, Melbourne. We went on the tram, we had a fabulous day and I saw this building and there were these people embracing outside this little kind of scruffy looking but cool scruffy building. So I decided I was going to paint it as soon as I got a chance to. So then I made… I want to show you how many times I have to do something to get it right. I’m working with the medium transparent watercolor where there are no backsies, there are no halfsies, and you can’t erase. The painting right behind me, especially those of you on Instagram can see it, that I did with oil, but it was transparent oil mixed with lacquer varnish so that it would shine more, and that I had to discipline myself the same way you would with transparent watercolor. The whole idea is you’re starting with light, you’re starting with the white of the canvas or the white of the paper, and you have to paint around the bright spots. You don’t get to build those up, if you don’t avoid them while you’re painting everything else.

If you go over something wrong, if the shade of paint dries incorrectly, you just have to throw it away and start again. So here was a pencil sketch. I’m going to show you this even though there’s no space to show you. This is my initial pencil sketch with my… I have two different little sketches with notes, what to paint first, what to paint second. Then I did a quick watercolor sketch. This was the deal. They’re standing and hugging each other on Brunswick Street. Okay, great. That looks like crap to me. So I did this one thinking, “Oh, that’ll be crisper or clearer. I’ll get the drawing right.” I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. Now these things down here, the chairs or whatever…” I get nonverbal as soon as I start doing this. I don’t like it. It’s a mess. Start again. And each one of these takes me between five and 10 hours.

So here’s another one. I was like, “Okay, get that, great.” And then I was like, “I hate that color. It’s such a downer. I need this to be cleaner, crisper. Nope, can’t do it. Throw it away. I also want to change the composition. I’m going to throw in another lamp post. Ha ha. I did it. Except I don’t like the lamp post the way it is there.” Okay? So then I go to sleep, okay but in the night my brain is trying to fix the painting. So I get up in the middle of the night, I do a tiny little watercolor sketch on a piece of regular note paper, not watercolor paper to give me an idea.

And then I got up and did another sketch on watercolor. This one I kind of like, it doesn’t look great on Instagram, maybe it’s my filter. But I kind of like it. It’s brighter and cleaner. Oh, it looks terribly yellow on Instagram, too saturated. All right, enough art talk. My point is I have spent so many hours and I don’t care about the painting that much. I have so many paintings that I’ve worked that hard on. I haven’t added up all the hours I spent on this one watercolor. When it’s done, I will put it somewhere, I’ll give it to Ro, she will put it somewhere. She’s like, “Oh sweetheart, I can keep it in a pile.”

And what I realized is it’s because it’s never about the painting to my soul. It’s about painting. Do you hear the difference? It’s not about the painting, it’s about painting. And that sort of pinged alive for me and I thought whatever the peeps are doing out there in the Gathering Room, whatever you’re working on, it’s not about the thing you’re working on. It’s about the person you are becoming by doing the thing. So when I was writing my book, I didn’t know how to write a book about anxiety. I couldn’t even calm my own anxiety. And there’s all this brain stuff I didn’t know. Writing that book, which took me about five years, was not about the book. Not to my soul. I hope y’all read it and love it and I hope it does some people some good. But for me, it was about becoming the person who could write the book.

Someone who could reliably calm anxiety, who could understand what I was reading in the brain science, or at least most of it, I don’t claim to be an expert. That’s what my soul was after. So if you’re raising a child, it’s not about that child to your soul. I know it, this is a taboo to say it’s not about your child because it’s always supposed to be about your child. Your child’s going to grow up and leave. It’s about you… When you have a kid, somebody gives you a kid, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know how to raise a human. No one knows how to raise a human. We just raise people who, if we can get them to adulthood, can look back and tell us all the things we did wrong. That’s okay because it’s about becoming the person who has raised the child, who knows your own limitations and who knows that depth of love and who knows how hard that is.

I’m never going to get this painting right. I’m certainly never going to do right by all my children, but by God I’m going to try. And every time I put those hours, the 10,000 hours into whatever it is, it’s me I’m creating ultimately at the end of the day. Does this track for you guys? This is called, in psychology, a meta skill. So for example, if you learn another language, a lot of you are coming at us from different parts of the world where I’m sure you speak other languages, which is very impressive. Each time you learn a language… So if you learn French or Mandarin or Swahili, those are languages. You now have one more language. But at the same time you develop a meta skill of how to learn a language. So you may be learning Russian, but what’s happening really is you’re becoming a person who not only knows Russian, but who knows how to learn a language. So whatever you’re doing…

One of the things that bothers us so much in the west is transience. What is the word? The word that means nothing goes on forever. It’s not just… Impermanence. Impermanence and death, impermanence and death. We get so upset by the fact that everything’s always slipping through our fingers, always changing, always going to end. And this is why in Tibet they make these beautiful sand mandalas, that they pour the sand to make the mandala. And then when it’s beautiful and huge and gorgeous and absolutely perfect, they get little brooms and just sweep it away, the monks do. Why? Because it’s not about the mandala, it’s about becoming the person who made the mandala. It’s about taking with you the understanding of what it means to create in an apparent reality where nothing ever lasts, nothing you make will last, but you will. And the process of making the thing turns you into a different being. It composes you the way Bach would compose a cantata or something, or Beethoven would compose a symphony.

You become something very different through the process of having to put all this effort into something that will not turn out right and it will not last. If we’re really out to make stuff, we would be so screwed because it’s just going to go away in a flood or a fire or the history of time. But we’re not here for that. We’re here to turn ourselves into people who can learn languages, who can understand what a child is going through. Who can understand what a parent is going through, who can know the stuff that’s in the book that you write that maybe never gets published. It’s not about the painting, it’s about painting. It’s not about the thing you’re so attached to, not your relationship, not your work, nothing. It’s about who you are becoming as you interact with that thing. So I just want to take this opportunity to take everything that we can remember trying really hard to do right and let it go.

Let it go. It’s not happening anymore right now. We’re just sitting here on the Gathering Room. Don’t know what you’re doing, I’m here in my house in Pennsylvania. But we’re different than we were when we started that project that didn’t work out or didn’t last or has now been forgotten. And that will never be forgotten and that will last. And we are a different form of consciousness and we are becoming something richer and more beautiful and more complex and more joyful. And that’s the essence of creativity is to create ourselves. So that’s all… It’s a very simple point, but I really want you to think about it because you will go through these days, these next days before we get to the Gathering Room again, making stuff, cleaning stuff, taking care of stuff that won’t stay made or cleaned or taken care of, because that’s not the point. That’s never the point, but you are the point.

I think that’s why Byron Katie says, “If you understood how important you are, you would shatter into a billion pieces and just be light.” That’s how important you are, you’re a manifestation of the creator. And you’re part of the creation at the same time. So I want to just take that thought into our meditation. So think about the thing that you have tried so hard to do that isn’t right yet. Or you got it done but nobody paid attention. Or it was great and everybody celebrated, but now everyone’s forgotten. Think of it and just realize that all the essence of what that thing was has become you.

And it’s in the space, the silence, and the stillness that is our real essence. So let’s use our trigger phrase, get calm, breathe easy, and say, inside your head, “Can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Is it possible for me to imagine the distance between the top of my head and bottom of my feet? Can I imagine the vividness of creation and creativity in the emptiness that makes up most of my body? Can I hear the silence beneath every sound? Can I feel the absolute stillness in which all the efforts of my life have taken place, and in which they are suspended in a saturation of love? Can I imagine the beauty that is us becoming what we become through creating what we create? Can you imagine the light that is in you?”

I feel you. I feel you. And now I have a few minutes to answer some questions. I really feel you people, the soles of my feet are tingling like crazy. I’ve never brought them into this before. They’re happy to be here. All right, Elise says, “How can we let ourselves desire more without getting disappointed with our current reality? I feel like I can’t get myself to make changes without feeling discontent.” Yeah. so you desire more. You say, “Oh, I haven’t made that yet.” And realize that the desire to create more is… In Liz Gilbert’s famous TED talk, her brilliant first TED talk where she talked about how each of us has a creating spirit that lives with us. And some cultures believe that it’s actually running around the house and some people think it’s in our heads or whatever. But it’s the creative daemon, pronounced daemon, but it’s spelled daemon, so don’t think it’s a bad thing.

The little daemon sits up and goes, “Oh, what if you could make it this? What if you could do it that way? What if it could be even better?” And that can feel like disappointment because there’s a space between what we can imagine being beautiful and what we can create. But if we push through that space, this is what psychologists call deep practice, it changes our neural tissue when we try very hard to reach a kind of level of beauty, performance, perfection that we’ve never reached before, and we fail, but we fail a little better every single time, each time it’s closer to perfect. Will it ever be perfect? Probably not. But that little gap between what we can imagine and what we’ve done already is what makes us… It pulls us forward to compose bigger and bigger symphonies, more and more beautiful experiences. So learn to love that little gap between what you want, what you want to create, and what you’ve been able to create so far, because that’s your motor, that’s what keeps you going.

But you got to rejoice in the process of the journey and just be glad. It’s like you’re running around Disneyland or something. It’s not like, “Oh, I did all the rides and now there’s another ride I have to do. I thought I did Disneyland.” No, you’re there to get on different rides. Another ride is just like, “Yay, more.” So yeah, another desire, another image of what could be perfect, it’s just another ride. It’s just more fun. And if you think, “Oh, I’ve got to make this perfect, it just kills the joy.” You’re there to play. We’re here to play. If you’re feeling a lot of grief or exhaustion or sickness right now and you can’t play, you’re here to rest. Do rest until you feel like playing. And then to play until you feel like resting. And play always create something. And the process of it though, it’s forgotten tomorrow always, changes us, especially if it’s deep play.

Remember I said that they figured out it takes 400 repetitions of something for us to master a skill unless we’re playing. And if we’re playing, it only takes about 10 repetitions. So play, play, play. Dr. Donna says, “How do you shut off the connection to how other people view or think about the thing. I love doing, but get caught in the opinion of others.” Fine. Just have some time where you’re just going to create and if thoughts of what people think come up, do whatever…. Put a rubber band on your wrist and snap it or put a sign up that says, “Stop carrying what other people think.” Or, “Creation time.” It’s kind of like when you go in to do a radio show or a TV show, they used to have… When they had studios and everybody didn’t have a TV studio in their pocket.

There would be a big sign that said, “On air.” And the lights would come on, this big red light, “On air. Don’t say anything.” Just put an on air sign and just have it say, “No thinking about others opinions.” Then the moment the light goes off, you got an hour to create, create for that hour, turn off the creativity thing and then just wallow in how horrible you think other people are and how they’re going to judge you. Maybe you’ll need to do a little of that. If that’s part of your brain, it may manifest itself. Just make sure it has its own time and place. It’s like it’s similar to potty training, I’m going to break this down for you. There are things we do that we would rather just do in privacy, and they’re not particularly pleasant all the time, but they’re necessary. So if thinking about other people’s opinions is like that for you, then go to the little room where you sit in a place of malodorous and unpleasant embarrassing-ness and just get it over with.

There’s no time to stop, there’s no time to stop composing ourselves. We are here to self-create. So just go for it. And then if you have to go into the little room, it’s just part of the excrementitious process of getting rid of ego. Okay, Francis Yogi Universe says, “So hard not to be attached to the fruits of our actions.” So true. We have a treadmill, I was walking on it and Lila, our three-year-old said, oh, “Muffy is doing yoga on the walking board.” And I brought that up because I was on this treadmill, it was raining, it was cold. I was thinking, “I should really be outside. I really should be outside experiencing nature and everything.” And then I thought, “I’m here to walk.”

Yeah, I don’t need to get anyplace. It’s the process of the effort that’s making my legs stronger, same thing. The walk can be… You can have the most beautiful walk through the most gorgeous paradise that you ever visited on vacation, and it will be amazing. That walk will be amazing. Or you can get on the yoga board and just trudge out a few miles in one place. It’s okay, because composing yourself is always the objective, and it always works, and it always stays. If you fail, it teaches you more than if you succeed. So you cannot lose as long as self-composition is your goal. Okay, so Steph says, “How do you keep creating and composing as play instead of it tending to become work?” What a great question, because in our culture, it’s always, “Can you sell that? Can you sell it? Do you think you can sell it? You should do that professionally. Do you want to sell it?”

There is nothing that stops creativity faster than saying, “Well, you have to make it pay.” They’ve even done exercises where they have people solving a creative problem, you have to be creative to solve this problem. A little logic problem, and people have fun solving it. And then they say to them, “Okay, we’re going to pay you $10 if you solve it.” Can’t do it. Their creative brains just shut right down. The whole motive driven materialist side of us, which is sort of left hemisphere dominant, absolutely overwhelms our cultural standards. So we don’t create for the sake of creating. We don’t create little pictures for the sake of creating them, much less for the sake of creating our own souls. That’s not part of our culture. So in order to stop thinking that way, you have to realize that the culture’s obsession with work and productivity, it’s all about having stuff that will last forever.

Guess what? Nothing lasts forever, and being attached to your stuff makes you miserable. That’s why this culture that has sent people to the moon and spread all over the globe is also killing our environment so we can’t live here anymore. It makes no sense. But we’re so obsessed with that as the truth. “Well, does it pay?” “No, no. Don’t.” See if you can just articulate that this is a cultural idiom and you don’t need it to have fun to create. You don’t need it to go on all the rides. In fact, it will stop you from going on most of the rides. That’s what my whole book’s about too. So I hope that helps. So is the Gathering book all the time. Gathering book, the Gathering Room.

Okay, Norma says, “Martha, you have so many gifts and talents and so many people who love you and people you love. How do you manage your time when you can go in a million different directions. And you are so humble and have such incredible [inaudible 00:25:23]…” She’s praising me to the skies. I have a praise headache from Norma. I do go in a million different directions. I have bad ADHD and I only say bad because the culture thinks it’s bad. For me, it’s just a [inaudible 00:25:38]… I just have the mind of a golden retriever. So if I really, really get excited about something, I do it for a while. Then I stop being excited, typically stop doing it. That’s it. That’s my secret.

But I don’t feel like I have gifts and talents, I just have enthusiasms. And I have enthusiasms because I let myself off the hook of the culture. And that, I will say, that my getting a PhD in Sociology helped me finally realize all of this is just made up. I don’t have to do what the culture says. And then you’re on your own. And then things get really fun. Andy Grammer… I wonder if it’s the Andy Grammer who is a very beloved singer. I’m a big fan of a guy named Andy Grammer. He says, “I’m great at playing, pretty atrocious at resting. Any advice?” Keep going as hard as you can until you are so exhausted you fall down. That’s what I did. I fell down for many years on end, and then I got much better at resting because I realized it’s not… If you’re pushing through stress and you’re exhausted… I always wanted to get the thing done. Like, “I want to get the workout done.”

Well, it’s not about the workout, it’s about your body. It’s about what the workout gives you. So I used to say to myself at the gym, “It’s not about today, it’s about every day. It’s not about doing it now. It’s about being able to do it more consistently.” That helped me rest. There’s a whole question about… A whole line for people who struggle to rest, and I think I’ll do that maybe next week on the [inaudible 00:27:24]. So I just have a couple more here and then we’ll finish. Tracy has been doing Letters from Love. If you don’t know what those are, check out Liz. Gilbert’s Patreon. Is it… Substack? That’s it. Anyway, Tracy says, “My Letters from Love have been urging me to feel those negative emotions more like pain, frustration, and fear. Do you think the path to peace is to experience all your emotions, not just holding peace?”

Oh yeah, you can’t hold peace. You can’t hold it. No, it’s there. When you let go. The minute you grab something, you’ve lost peace. And the only way to not grasp peace is to allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling. Okay, here’s a topic I want to do later. I was meditating the other day and I thought, “Let go, let go, let go.” And I was feeling negative emotions, and I finally realized, let’s do a turnaround. And instead I started saying, “Let’s stay. Let it stay. Let it stay. Let the negative emotion stay.” And immediately it started to move and to leave me. So don’t grip, just relax. Let yourself be in the moment that you are, and know that negative emotions compose a different symphony, and a more beautiful and complex symphony than you would have if you never felt anything but jolliness. Yeah.

Oh, finally, Melanie. “Do you think creative platforms like Substack and Patreon stifle creativity because they pay?” Maybe, I know people who have struggled. I know people who’ve gotten on Substack and created a following and then couldn’t… Suddenly there was pressure to do it and the joy was gone. That’s a razor’s edge that artists walk. And there are ways you could get around it, ways we’ll have to talk about later. But right now, if you’re trying to do that, continuously pulling your attention off the thing you’re making and onto the thing that is making them, that is making itself, that is the consciousness of the divine, creating new ideas and experiences and objects through you as its point of consciousness. So important. You would shatter into a billion pieces and just be light. Keep taking your attention off the goal our culture would give you, and put it back to composing yourself into the grandest symphony that you can possibly make. I love you all so much. Thank you so much for coming all this way to be with me on the Gathering Room. I’ll see you next week. I love you.

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