BLOG*April 18, 2012

I met Peter Clothier two years ago and felt an immediate kinship. Hence, I interviewed him soon after our meeting: Kindred Purpose. Now with a new book to share it is time to speak with this amazing art spirit again.

By his own words, he is a reformed academic but still teaches in mostly non-traditional ways: workshops, continuing groups, individual coaching/mentoring for artists and writers. Mostly he writes. His Blogs, TheBuddhaDiaries.com, PERSIST: THE BLOG, and commentary on the HuffingtonPost are read by many. Last year he was invited to speak at TEDx Fullerton.

Clothier’s first book, Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce was a collection of musings on the art and the creative process. His latest book, Mind Work is a collection of short essays where he explores the journey of self. Parami Press describes it thus; Within the framework of an active Buddhist meditation practice, Mind Work is an authentic search for the creative core through a process of uncompromising self-examination, conducted in the belief that the closer we come to core of the individual “self,” the more we discover about our shared humanity, and the more we open ourselves up to creative inspiration.

GS: Why do you write?

PC: The answer I usually give is “Because that’s what I’m given to do.”  I knew this already at the age of twelve, but I spent a good deal of my life doing other things to make a living. The other answer is that I feel wrong about myself when I don’t.  I have a powerful sense of mission, and writing is a part of it.  And finally, writing is my way of coming to understand myself and the world I live in. If I did it for the money, I’d be in the poor house!

GS: Living from the heart is profound and difficult. Saints and sages have spoken of this for ages yet we still are reminding ourselves that it is worthwhile. Could it be that this world, this reality pulls us away from our center?

PC: Oh, yes, it does.  There are many distractions that pull us this way and that.  My own way of staying in touch with the creative core is through meditation.  I do it every day, and it has become an essential part of my life and work.  It affords me the opportunity to observe what’s going on in my heart and mind, and to make corrections when I get off track.  As I see it, it’s vital to stay centered, and to know how to pay attention to the things that are important.

GS: Meditation is a powerful tool for connecting to the source. It is an essential facet of my life too. I want to call you the observer, because in true buddhist form you take a neutral look at reality. However, your humanity pushes in and we also feel your passion. It is nice balance. Is this a conscious approach to writing or has it evolved naturally?

PC: That’s a nice observation, and I think a very acute one. I have found that balance—let’s say I keep finding it, because I’m perfectly capable of losing it, over and over again—through practice. And I mean practice in both sense of the word: the meditation practice, and the writing practice. I have been doing the writing for more than fifty years, and I suppose it’s really a blend of hard work and a “natural” development over time. I find that I write with greater and greater ease and fluency, and the balance comes without my thinking much about it any more.

GS: I tell my students that the best art I have created is when I get out of the way and let it flow. You write that the words of your favorite Buddhist mantra are: “This is not me, this is not mine, this is not who I am.” Is this the same thing?

PC: Yes, I think it comes from the same source. I do my best work when I manage to get my ego out of the way and quit worrying about whether it’s “good” or “bad.” For a long time, I worked with an editor sitting on my shoulder and cautioning me along the way. I used to fight him; nowadays, I just thank him for his kind concern and tell him that just now is not a good moment for his judgments.

GS: How do you feel your writing has evolved over the years?

PC: I started out as a poet, I became a fiction writer and an art critic, I now think of myself as an essayist. But essays, for me, are akin to poetry. I love the brevity, the precision. I feel comfortable with the genre. My writing, it seems to me, has found a good home. Interestingly, when I look back to what I wrote years ago, I find many of the same concerns and themes that occupy me today: I have always abided by that wonderful old adage: How do I know what I think ‘til I see what I say? Writing has always been, and continues to be, my means of exploration into the unknown: an adventure.

GS: In your essay, “Stepping Back, Stepping Out, Stepping Up,” you proceed to talk about the sometimes difficult choices you made throughout your career. There are moments when it becomes necessary to leave certain parts of one’s previously established self behind, in order to make space for something new. Surrendering to the new can be a challenge for us all, whether it be in art or in life. What are some techniques you now use to help ease these transitions?

PC: I know that I do best when I’m willing to take a risk and venture, as I said just now, into new territory. I watch out for those moments when I find myself doing the familiar and getting bored with it. It’s when I get comfortable that I know the time has come to take a risk. Then I ask myself what is the last thing I want to do, and go ahead and do it. I look for the point of resistance, and head for it. It’s like the lion hunt: you go for the roar.

GS: There is definitely something to be said about the benefits of taking risks. I love your quote, “fear and laziness are not acceptable excuses for willful ignorance.” Willful ignorance is definitely an illusion I have battled from time to time. You could almost consider this attribute to be rampant in our society. Not knowing is one thing but not wanting to know is an easy way out and does not serve anyone. How do we remove this lazy brain?

PC: We do the work. I think my answer to your last question is relevant here. One way is to wonder, how would it be if the opposite to what I believe happens to be true?

GS: You mention that, “compassion is best understood as a matter of practice not a matter of choice.” Some people consider compassion a weakness. How can compassion be shown to have as much strength as the instinct to protect our self interests?

PC: I find it sad that some consider compassion a weakness—and particularly that this judgment seems so prevalent in our political life today. Curiously, there’s a good deal of research being done that suggests that compassion is indeed in our self-interest, and is likely hard-wired into our human make-up. Perhaps you have read that very few soldiers actually fired at other human beings in the Second World War? They aimed above and to the side, but not to kill. The military has had to learn new training methods in order to make the soldiers more efficient killers. Curiously, too, that training draws not on their “killer instinct” but on their natural compassion—their desire to protect their buddies or the lives of the innocent. Compassionm is turns out, was a necessary survival skill for our species eons ago. In protecting others, we protect ourselves.

GS: Are you happy and content with your writing career, or do you desire something more? Do you have any other goals?

PC: Yes, I’m happy and no, I’m not content! I still wish for a wider audience for what I write, and work hard to develop my readership. I nourish a conviction that what I have to say is of value to my fellow human beings, and I want every single one of them to read it. My goal, then, is to keep writing, and keep expanding my audience. More specifically, I have another book almost ready for the publisher. It will be called “Slow Looking”—by analogy with “slow cooking”—and it’s about my gallery and museum events, “One Hour/One Painting.”

GS: I have heard about the “One Hour/One Painting” events, where a group of you contemplate a painting for one hour. Sounds like a great exercise in expanding your awareness. How are you promoting your book? Any cool events you are creating/attending that my readers can know about?

PC: Yes. Watch out for a “One Hour/One Painting” session at a local museum or gallery. These sessions are all about “Mind Work”—the title of the book I am promoting right now. These sessions ask participants to slow down and put their minds to work in the contemplation of a work of art. Otherwise, I’m doing what I can to promote the book online, getting podcast interviews and blog interviews like this one (thank you!) and sending out copies for review. I have pretty much given up on “book-signings,” and prefer instead to lecture and lead discussion groups. I have been quite successful in developing a reputation on the lecture circuit, and find this to be the best way to get the word out.

GS: Sounds like you have the high touch, high tech promotion format down. Excellent. Any final pearls of wisdom?

PC: Pearls, hmmm. I guess I go back to the title of my last book, “Persist.” I find it hard to believe that I am now in my mid-seventies, and that persistence is still of absolute importance to me. I love what I do, I am committed to my writing and the ideas I work with, and know that it’s only through persistence that I’m able to pursue this work that is my life. The other pearl? Gratitude… It does wonders for the spirit!

GS: Well, I am grateful for knowing you Peter! Thank you kindly for sharing your thoughts and experiences with me and my readers. May your books and teaching continue to inspire and shake up/wake up the world.

Onward and upward,

Greg