In war, military generals want to gather as much intelligence on their enemy as they can. Every good military strategist is trying to avoid being caught by surprise and is staging their own surprise attacks and ambushes.
It’s the surprise attacks from the enemy that do the most damage. The spies leaking the secret documents, the ambush on the weak point in the front line. When you don’t see it coming, you aren’t prepared, you can’t stage a defence and you’re caught with your guard down.
I’m drawing on this analogy to explain the hidden enemy to your art and anything else that’s truly important to you.
The hidden enemy is your brain, and in particular your lizard brain, also known as the amygdala.
Have you ever had a dream that you wanted to pursue, but you didn’t take action? Have you ever set out on a new art project, program, or idea only to become distracted, put it off, and eventually forget about it? Have you ever committed to a new gym program, started to miss a few sessions and before you knew it, you’ve let the membership lapse and haven’t been back since?
These are all victories of the lizard brain but unfortunately for you they are heavy losses for you in your fulfilment, satisfaction, sense of achievement, and aliveness. Even the best artists and creatives of all types deal with this inner battle.
I want you to start to identify these incidents of delaying your important work and your lack of follow through as not mysterious accidents or just fate working on you but rather an insidious enemy whose sole purpose is to keep your life exactly the way it is.
The lizard brain is called that because it’s the part of the human brain that scientists have identified as most closely resembling a reptile's where it’s responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response and other instincts essential to survival.
Your lizard brain wants to keep you safe. It also wants to keep you comfortable, conserving energy, and storing fat in case of a possible famine. Once the lizard brain has identified ways for you to behave in your environment to keep you safe and comfortable, it will fight like hell to keep things that way.
Steven Pressfield in his book The War Of Art, calls this force the Resistance. Pressfield says most of us have two lives, the life we live and the un-lived life within us, the stuff of our dreams and hopes. What stands between us and that un-lived life is Resistance.
Jonathan Fields, calls the risk of loss and exposure to judgment that comes with making art, Uncertainty.
Doing creative work you deeply care about is very risky to the lizard brain. If you give yourself fully to it and you fail to live up to either your own or others expectations, then the downside is considerably larger than doing nothing. Sure the upside could be deep fulfilment, happiness, and a sense of peace, but on a deep subconscious level, your lizard brain is only thinking about all the possible downsides to undertaking anything new, it doesn’t really care about your fulfilment.
So coming back to the war analogy, the surprise attacks are the most dangerous.
It’s you and the cause for fulfilment fighting against your lizard brain and the cause for safety and comfort. The lizard brain has many weapons at its disposal to win the war. Procrastination, justification, excuses, comparisons, tiredness and hunger, a forgetful memory, assuming the worst, fantasising, and many more crafty ways.
The lizard brain has been so devastatingly effective at hindering your creativity because you thought it’s attacks (thoughts) were you. It’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
You believed the excuse of “I’ll do it tomorrow”. You bought into the story of “I’ll never be a good enough writer to make it professionally, so I won’t bother”. When you listen to this stuff and let it stop you, you’re letting the enemy spies stab you in the back and shoot you in the foot.
The side of fulfilment also has its own weapons that can be used to counter the enemy. Some include: Consistently working on your craft, discipline, structure, accountability, community, a process focus, and many others.
The first step in winning this war which is a constant battle when you’re doing work that you care about, is discovering the spy in your midst that is sabotaging you. Notice the thoughts that you’ve previously listened to and march forward to do what you know you need to do to be creatively fulfilled. Do your important work and be prepared for the Resistance to come.
Being forewarned is forearmed.
Image courtesy of Mitch Barrie, 'Ruger GP100' under license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/