The Algebra of Success

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Hello from calm. I almost forgot what this feels like. I’m sitting in the grass across from the prayer wheels. It’s twilight and the rock against my back is still warm with the day’s sun. I don’t hear a single human voice or see a single human form. Aside from the grinding of some one’s tires along the road, I would hardly know there are still people nearby.

The center’s closed for ten blissful days. Most of the volunteers have cleared out to visit former homes or have foreign adventures. The public is reduced to a few diehards who live nearby and come just to walk around the stupa or sit by themselves in the temple. There’s few enough people around that it’s possible to be alone out of doors, and somewhere other than the few square meters of my home. I thought about going to the ocean for a few days, but as much as I miss the smell of salt water and the way that only beach sand can burn your feet, I’m glad I stayed.

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It’s good to have time where, instead of adding new experiences and stimulus to work through, I can just reflect on everything I’m already busy living.

I’m trying to look at what, in the course of a day, decides how I spend my time and what, if I look at what I actually want to accomplish in my life, might change in how I spend my time. I discovered this truly awesome website called The Great Discontent that’s been really supporting my process. It’s an ongoing series of interviews with all different kinds of creative people about what they do and how they got where they are now. There’s a few people you’ve probably heard of (Cheryl Strayed, Emiliana Torrini), but it’s totally not a roster of superstars who have otherworldly success that us normal folks could hardly dream of. It’s real people explaining how they make creative passions into viable lives.

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And mostly they seem to say that you have to actually do the thing that you want to be successful at doing. Write if you want to write; paint if you want to paint; make music if you want to make music. The stories also emphasize a lot the importance of sharing and connecting with other people to allow your work to find its way into the world and reach the right audience. There’s also a pretty consistent narrative that even though you can, and pretty much will, succeed if you persevere, you will also be determinedly poor at some or multiple points and success will probably not be as stable as you hoped. But people who succeed are usually not doing it for the stability. Because another common thread is that all these people create for love. For love of doing it and for love of the offering that can be made of what we create.

So now I’m asking myself, “What do I want to create, and how much time can I set aside to pursue said creation?” I’m not doing it for the money at all, though I can’t deny a spark of a dream that someday I might be able to help finance the Institute or other dharma projects through creative work. I’m also not limiting my question to art-related creation. Just to clarify, for me, art refers to making anything that doesn’t have a technical application. If you want to nitpick the details of what that means, well…we can get into it another time. Take that as you will for the moment.

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My question works out to something like this: My goal is to prioritize certain activities because they englobe what I want to offer in the world. If I were leading a more traditional lifestyle, that would mean figuring out how to make a living doing whatever it is I want to do. But since the bulk of my energy is geared toward developing the activity of Dhagpo and Karmapa, Shamar Rinpoche, and Jigme Rinpoche, my question becomes, “How can I develop the activities that help me develop individually so that they are also activities that directly benefit the causes and pursuits to which my life, and the precious hours of my days, are tied?”

Answers are…rich with possibility. And incertitude. The trending idea is basically that I have to develop these activities in whatever ways already exist within the context of my responsibilities at Dhagpo and whatever temporary opportunities pop up, but also that I have to seriously pursue my projects on my own time so that their value can become apparent and applicable. This means creating finished work. Finished pieces of writing. Finished drawings, paintings, hell, series if I’m really serious. And then getting the work out into the world. And on the non-art side of things, it means studying, meditating, and presenting what I’ve understood enough that that too can become a part of my legit activity, otherwise known as teaching.

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I guess it’s pretty obvious. It’s the knuts and bolts that are tricky. But even if the basic outline is fairly self-evident, there’s something galvanizing about writing out the blueprint. Doing so peels back the layers of drama and identity-crisis that so often go with reaching for a goal. In the end, it’s not really about me and my passion or my potential. It’s just a simple equation: a Jourdie in this life has x and y nature. You naturally have to divide them by x and y activity to cancel the whole thing out and finish with emptiness, aka Buddha nature. I’m making algebra out of the path to enlightenment. Usually math makes me shudder. I guess I must be onto something.

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