Friday, December 8, 2023
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Overcoming Overwhelm

Making the decision to be your own boss, to become a working artist, may seem from the outside like the key to ultimate freedom. You perhaps envision waking up and having the day stretch out before you, a little breakfast here, some work there, sell a few pieces and repeat. Once you land here though, you realize things look rather different from the fantasy of the working artist. While few people are under the delusion that this sort of life is an easy way to make money, perhaps few understand just how much goes into running your own business. It is also true that many artists may not realize that this is exactly what they’re signing up to do.

The moment you choose to monetize your work, you become a business. That means you are now responsible for everything from the work itself to your profits and losses. Marketing, exhibiting, sales, all you. On top of this, as a working artist you still need to find plenty of time to get into the studio or out in the field or wherever are the places you go for your artistic practice. There are websites and email lists to be considered, grants to apply for, patrons to seek, every minute detail of your business must be attended to in order for you to stay afloat. It’s enough to overwhelm even the most organized person.

Years ago a friend had a small sign pinned to the wall above her bathroom mirror. It read, “Breathe, my dear.” While it sounds so simple, this is actually very sage advice. We often forget to breathe, in a sense. We become so tangled in our own narrative, so plugged in and preoccupied with directing every moment that we forget to enjoy the ride.

There is no way around the fact that being a full-time working artist is a heck of a lot. So many balls in the air at any given moment can easily lead to a sinking sensation. When you feel like your head is under water, resurface for a moment and breathe, my dear.

In Buddhism, one of the main practices is to be present. Again something that sounds so very simple but in reality is often entirely out of reach. We spend a lot of time running ahead–spinning out scenarios and imagining how they’ll go, distracting ourselves from the present moment with all manner of things because it’s easier to not think at all than it is to consider the millions of details that require attention.

It may come as no surprise that this constant cycle of distraction and avoidance can easily lead to more stress and overwhelm. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, particularly to our highly protective minds, taking the time to sit with your stress is one of the best ways to move through it.

This doesn’t mean you should dwell. No one is suggesting that spending all your time worrying about what needs to be done and what isn’t finished is a constructive use of your time. Simply that it is important to bear witness to all you do. Look stress in the eye and say, you will not get the better of me.

One way to do this is to set aside a little time every day to just sit, be present. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy activity, five minutes can do wonders. There needn’t be a formality to the practice if that doesn’t work for you, but there are certain elements that are common to typical meditation practice.

Because that’s what this is. Contrary to popular belief, most meditation isn’t about attaining some plain of existence high above our everyday consciousness. Conversely, it is about being present in the moment. Meditation is a practice (mark that word, practice–it isn’t about getting things right, it’s about consistently doing them) meant to get us more in touch with our own minds.

Meditation can also come in many forms. Some choose to sit in the traditional manner (there are loads of books and websites to help you understand what this means) while others find their groove in exercise or in the presence of nature. What is important is to allow dedicated time away from your daily routine to sit with your mind, be present, acknowledge how you operate under pressure.

Life is full. End stop. There are myriad things you must attend to in your personal sphere on top of which, as a working artist, you are a one person show in your professional realm. Being overwhelmed is a normal and healthy reaction to all of this. It is how we keep ourselves motivated and moving forward. It is also easy for things to get out of hand and slow you down.

Take control of facing up to your stress. Give yourself time to look at it, hold it in your hands, and, importantly, let it go.




  1. Brainard, as a side line to the very valuable article you have written, I would like to add that for decades I have realized that the art I am truly interested in is the art of living, paying attention to what I do with my life and acting accordingly. In this life long quest to create a life well lived, I have made mistakes but have also known many satisfying moments, creativity is about discovering and experimenting with the transformation of energy in a framework of time and space, meditation is a worthwhile practice in this journey, it helps refine focus, vision and intention. It is my belief that the fine arts are simply a sophisticated reflection of the art of living, the material expression of conscious transformation joined by the magic of alchemy… mysterious transformation. Many thanks for your stimulating thoughts and energy.

    • Thanks Ricardo, I agree wth you about the art of living, I think of it also as ‘designing your life’ meaning how we choose to spend our time because it is essentially all up to ourselves how we design the time we spend each day. Or to put in more succinctly from a recent quote I heard -> “Consider this: the tea you brew in the morning is the tea you drink all day” That made me stop and think about all the patterns I set up daily.

  2. Brainard, you hit the nail right on its head. I am a working artist, the challenges are endless. I have more stress as a working artist then I had as a construction project manager. However, all is well through meditation. My method is to walk as slow as possible. A 10 minutes walks can turned to 60 minutes, during that time, I m focus, aware and achieve what I call “Living Conciously”.

    • Thanks Reginald, I like your method very much, I use a version of that myself, now I will try to walk slower as well.


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