Dualism, relationships and results

Three friends: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg

Three friends: John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg



I’m on a roll here. Do you think your project is a failure? Do you think it’s a success? I have news – it’s neither. It’s just your project. But perhaps you have fallen prey to the misapplication of a concept we are sick with: dualism.

Think about it.

In virtually every segment of our lives, we reduce the possible outcomes to two options, like the 1 and 0 that drive all digital data, including this one you are enjoying right now:

  • either/or
  • win/lose
  • yes/no
  • up/down
  • in/out
  • republican/democrat
  • gay/straight
  • man/woman

Either-Or-And-Kent-HealyWe are so obsessed with dualism we have constructed entertainment empires out of it. The way we choose our leaders, name our celebrities, and plan our futures is based on this faulty premise: that there are only two, oppositional outcomes possible. It is an infantile relationship to reality, which in fact is filled with infinite outcomes, a reality so frightening that we retreat, over and over, to our baby book: no, there are only two possibilities (see the list above, and then add your own). Even the ones the most liberal among us took for granted, like man/woman, have now been revealed to be lies as well. Our gender is, like everything else, on an infinite continuum, and all our slavish addiction to dualism is merely a way to organize reality into a simple and easily quantifiable fiction. Really, dualism is sucking the life out of our existence in so many ways, and making so many of us miserable, because we believe in this lie.

I can think of only a few activities in which dualistic outcomes are appropriate. Competitive sports are one – win/lose, and I have often thought that our sick adoption of dualism in all aspects of our lives is a perversion of our love of sports (I love sports, by the way. Go Eagles. Go Patriots.) Maybe political campaigns? But even there, the “loser” often benefits from a campaign through increased visibility. And ask any scientist about the accumulation of knowledge through research. It is an on going process based on “failure” far more than “successes”.

A dualism which effects artists in a deeply negative way is precisely that one: success/failure. Notice how deplorably small those two words are, separated by that violent little slash. Here artists, here are your only possible outcomes: success/failure. And off we go, looking for something to measure either success or failure by, and to our detriment borrowing from the commercial world of profit/loss to find it.

But listen to Martha Graham, who taught Merce Cunningham, who taught my mother, who taught me:

“No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

There is never “success” for an artist. And so there is never “failure”. There is only a journey, and some goals along the way, and the tiny steps you take each day – outrageous acts of courage based on your own integrity – which move you towards those goals. Seen in this way, even the setbacks are not failures, they are rather aspects of the topography of your journey: to be expected and planned for, accepted and acknowledged, learned from and then left behind.  Seen as a journey, the artist’s life begins to relate to time authentically, and dualism is revealed to be any number of tasteless billboards along the way: seen, wondered at, mocked and passed by on your way toward the next goal, as we march along behind Martha, Merce and my mom.

Martha Graham

Martha Graham

When we embrace our creative life as a journey, we develop a strong connection to others on this journey, and a new approach to achieving results. In the previous post, I described a group of friends banding together to support another friend with an unreasonable and exciting vision: to put modern dance on Broadway. Here’s what I want to draw your attention to: not their talent (talent is a myth by the way), not their fashionable cache, not even the extraordinary act of generosity made by this group of friends to another.

What I want to draw your attention to is that they were friends (see photo above).

There is no technique, method or training you can pay for that will ever match the power and dynamism of the love of your friends. And when that love is engaged towards a common goal, the extraordinary become possible – no, it becomes certain. Of all the crimes of dualism, and all the blights of capitalism on our creative enterprises. perhaps this is the worst: that they drive us apart from each other, and lead us into lonely chambers of paranoia, competitiveness, insecurity and finally, creative paralysis. It is in community that we find our salvation, as it offers us comfort, encouragement and other kinds of capital beside currency: human capital, sweat equity, gift exchange, to name a few.

It is not your “successes” or your “failures” that you will cherish on your journey. They are fleeting, and often suspect, as they frequently rely on the opinions of others, and opinions are like assholes – everyone has one. No, it is the relationships you make and nurture which will become the greatest gift of your creative life, those people who “get” you, who are invested in you not with money, but with all of themselves. These are the people for whom, if you cannot make their lives better, if you cannot help them achieve their goals, then your goals are not worth achieving. And they feel the same about you. The longer your journey is, the larger this group becomes, and they float in out of proximity to you. But whether near or far, you find yourself a part of a self-perpetuating quilt, and you can’t imagine a single panel missing.

When we focus on relationships, the results we name become easier to achieve. Here’s the thing about results: we artists dream big, we have to. So it is tempting to notice how far away we are from the big-dream-result each day that we do not achieve it. But this does not constitute “failure”. What is important, and what our friends can help us with, is that every day we take a step, an action, towards that goal. I call this taking the long view in tiny steps. We must give our word: this is my goal. Here is the one way dualism works for the creative person:

I give my word that I will achieve an outcome, and then either I do or I don’t.

We must take whatever actions necessary to achieve it. But it doesn’t have to happen in one day, one month, one year. In fact, on that glorious day when we realize we made it, we have achieved that big dream, what happens? We take a few moments for savoring, then we ask the question all artists ask every day:

What will I create now?

Some topics covered in my seminar Unleashing Creative Empowerment which touch on these ideas:

  • who is in my village, supporting my project? And what’s in it for them?
  • what list of tiny steps towards my extraordinary goal can I create?
  • what myths and assumptions have I been using to judge myself and my project?

The most profound spiritual symbol I know represents the lie of duality. It shows us that the two things we think of as opposites are actually one thing – they are everything. And that our well-being is not to hold them apart and choose, but rather to hold them together, and notice how they are in relationship, how we can’t have one without the other: