The unbearable agony of focusing

Sometimes, it’s so easy to become literally and thoroughly absorbed by whatever creative project I’m working on. When this happens, it’s as if I’ve entered into some kind of alternate universe. Instantly, I lose track of the time and everything around me begins to recede into the background. People simply fade away, objects vanish, appointments are forgotten, as is the necessity for food. In these moments, the only thing that exists is what I’m doing, that which I see directly in front of me.

But this state of being occurred to me with greater frequency when I was younger. In time, distractions made themselves known. Over time, the distractions became more exciting than the work. Gradually, these distractions either conspired (or were manipulated by me) to lure me away from whatever work I was attempting to concentrate on. Eventually, the distractions became justified- then, habitual and not long after that, of greater priority than the work I did.

In time, I became aware that I’d permitted myself to be diverted and had lost my way. It took awhile to address these distractions and to understand how I’d used them as means of deflecting myself away from the work I did (and, the work away from me). I found it difficult to return creative work (and the concept of working) to it’s original level of priority, however, to do so was vital to my very survival.

Having become accustomed to being distracted (and to consistently chasing that dragon), redirecting my attention and focusing on something worthwhile feels strange and uncomfortable. This is true, even if that something worthwhile also happens to be something I love deeply.

These days, when working, I still get sucked down that long, winding rabbit-hole of myopic single-mindedness and the experience is extraordinary. I still fall in love with whatever I’m working on and I feel driven by the urge to simply do it. I can still find my focus, or rather- my focus finds me. However, more often than not, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to find focus and to stay focused- to concentrate on my work. This effort generates a pain beyond any description.

Working without motivation and instead, trying to maintain concentration which is self-generated is one of the most difficult things a creative person can do. This is partially because many creative people have gotten a free ride on the back of inspiration for so long. This ride never feels like work- instead, it’s like having a never ending, self-perpetuating source of energy, available at one’s beck and call, every moment of every day. One gets spoiled spending so much of their life feeling buoyed by this fuel. In this sense, inspiration becomes a form of entitlement. When inspiration is suddenly gone, the incentive to work can go, as well. It is at this point where many creative people will completely give up on what they are doing. Most of the time, a creative person simply won’t push themselves past the point where they begin to feel any discomfort.

Without motivation, a creative person feels as if they are in unfamiliar waters without any ability to navigate. Coming from a place where it was once so easy to just sit down and work, the alternative to pure motivation and inspiration feels like pure drudgery. And it is. Sometimes, the most difficult thing of all is to force one’s self to sit down in front of the project or work at hand. When there is no motivation or inspiration to do this, just doing it is a monumental task.

Once one is in front of their project and work has commenced, the process may suddenly feel incredibly easy. In this case, it begins to seem as if one is coasting through the process, as if avoiding it had been a the result of a momentary attack of insanity. The moment one becomes aware of this thought, is the exact moment one’s ego has taken hold. In the very next moment, the entire universe begins to reek of suffering. Work becomes pain, concentration becomes hell and all thoughts are redirected in a panicked attempt to alleviate the pain which has become all-pervasive.

One is awash in an existential agony and everything in the world is stimulating that agony. The mind instantly reverts to a survival mode- a means of shutting out and canceling the pain. It searches in panic for a diversion- a means of distracting consciousness away from the pain. This is no ordinary pain. This pain is the pain of being born into the creative flow of life. This is the pain of being truly alive and truly conscious.

Anything to get away from this pain. Anything and everything is suddenly a potential diversion. Who do I owe a phone call to? Do I need to email anyone? What’s on TV? I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m tired. I’m depressed. I can’t do what I’m doing. I’m not good enough to do what I’m doing. My world is going to end. Anything to stop the pain- even a convenient lie to one’s self.

There will be a respite from the pain, the instant one heeds that call and stops working. In considering this, one is faced with a choice. At the heart of this choice is the balance between darkness and light. Heaven and hell. Doing or not doing. Between these two opposite poles, a creative person walks a tight-rope and holds the very balance of the world. In a sense, this choice the creative person faces is similar to one of Christ’s temptations.

And this is why a creative person must hold firm and stay his course. A creative person must persevere in the face of this, or any diversion. Diversions, which appear to the creative person as being of little consequence, of putting his work off to the side and procrastinating, are actually a means of delaying his destiny. In fact, these matters are of great consequence; they concern the very existence of humanity and only appear small. With these diversions, he is being tested by the Divine as to whether or not he is worthy of his talents. By staying on course, by feeling the agony and hardship of his own effort, he is in effect, awakening himself. And, when one person awakens, he is awakening all of humanity with (and within) him. This is the responsibility an artist has to humanity and to the world- to awaken and to assist all beings in their awakening and in becoming conscious.

The inspiration I once received readily is almost gone. That inspiration was the thing which placed me on my path. That motivation to create showed me where to place my feet- after which, it was my choice to begin walking. Eventually, the inspiration dissipated and I found myself asleep in an unfamiliar, alien world. I had nothing left but the remnants and fruits of my previous labors to remind myself of where I once had been heading. I couldn’t find myself in this strange world- I couldn’t wake up and I saw nothing that I recognized. I would meditate upon my hands or my body and feel as if they belonged to someone else- not to me. I would see my own face reflected to me in glasses, mirrors and things which shone and I could not recognize or recall the person I was staring at. I was without bearings, completely and utterly lost.

And this is why I had to force myself to stay focused. It was the only way I could be cognizant of where I was, to find where I had lost my place on the path. To come back to who I was once again. To move freely once again through the dissonance. To awaken myself.

This is why every single day, I work. It doesn’t matter what I’m working at just so long as I’m working on something I love. I have learned from repeating this process over and over that the act of creative effort is the true gift- far greater than the inspiration to create. Inspiration is nothing more than an indicator, which states that what one is doing is the right thing for them to be doing. Inspiration comes once in awhile- however, only a person who does not take his own talents seriously will wait for it to reappear before applying himself.

Effort, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of man’s ability. Effort is the expression of man demonstrating to himself and to the universe that he is truly worthy to receive his abilities and that he will give himself completely and fully as a vehicle for those abilities to work through. Effort is man’s response to the challenge of distraction which is posed to him by the Divine. This is the juncture where man makes an agreement with the Divine, to selflessly offer his being on the sacrificial altar (similarly to the story of how Abraham offered his son Isaac on a sacrificial altar before his God) come what may. Effort in man is proof to the universe of man’s worthiness, of his character and his ethics. Focus is man’s ability to direct this effort.

Often, we hear about great people who were inspired every day of their lives- tirelessly, creating masterpieces, one after the other. These people are lionized and held up as the gold standard for how other creative people should live. Many of these great individuals are celebrated for having literally destroyed themselves in every possible way as a result of their obsession and devotion to their art. That incessant creative force must have surged through them even as their bodies fell apart. The stories of these people are as inspiring to us as they romanticize creative endeavor. These stories have helped to fabricate an archetype- that of the suffering artist. This is archetype is a product of Hollywood- not reality.

Reality is that neither inspiration nor motivation comes for all of us. It generally isn’t there for most of us. What is there (and is there, always), is the reward which comes from the dogged application of one’s abilities through countless hours of effort (often unseen or unappreciated by others). The reward of knowing that what one is creating, is coming into being as a result of that effort, that application. Then, comes the appreciation for one’s own labors and with it, real motivation. Then comes the realization that one has a calling, a purpose and value beyond description. And then, one has been reborn and is truly alive.

That awareness of self is the highest form of love there is.

12 responses to “The unbearable agony of focusing”

  1. Michael, it’s all pouring out of you and it’s awesome! Thanks for your honesty!

  2. You’ve hit it so accurately, the addictive quality of inspiration, the need for dogged determination to keep going without it. There are so many excuses so readily available, forcing work feels like such drudgery when one remembers the euphoria of effortless creativity.

    Thank you.


  3. Commander B, The good news? The problem is semi-curable. The bad news is it’s a function of aging. Arnold Palmer said what made him leave the tour was not his ability to hit the long ball, but his ability to remain focused on day 3 of the tournament when he had to make a 30 foot putt. In his younger days he’d simply will the ball into the hole. The semi-cure? It won’t work for Arnold, but it’s the “Yellow Pad.” You list what simply MUST get done FIRST, then # TWo, then THree, Four and five. As you finish #ONE you can then move on to # TWo. It’s a cheap trick for prioritizing, however much a slave you then become to the Yellow Pad! Stay thirsty, my friend.
    Commander H.

  4. Michael,
    How eloquently you have stated that which really tortures the artist; the fleeting quality of inspiration and the pain of the monumental effort to get through to the other side. Nothing on earth is harder than fighting back the insecurities and self doubt and trying to make create something that is worthy of that moment that inspired it. All creative people, by the very act of trying to create, bare their very nerves to the icy wind of the unknown, throw themselves off the cliff of fear and doubt, and expect to smash into the agony of failure, but they do it because this time it might just work…

  5. A concept known as the “low-information diet” and another that deals with one’s “circle of influence” vs. “circle of control” made me think of and revisit this article. Everything you write here still rings true, but it’s good to know the pains of focusing and the distractions that subsequently tend to emerge can be minimized.

  6. Correction: that’s “circle of influence” vs. “circle of concern”.