It was the summer of 2003, on the sixth day of a nine-day silent retreat, and I was sitting all alone in the meditation hall at three o’clock in the morning. Suddenly a voice next to me screamed “STOP BEING AN ARTIST!”. And again “STOP BEING AN ARTIST!!” It was shocking. I knew there was no one else in the room. I continued to sit. Then a different softer voice said to me, “and be nicer to your wife.” I continued to sit, wondering what had happened.

After the retreat, I couldn’t stop thinking about those words. They came on the heels of some very difficult financial and emotional times. And it became suddenly clear to me how my identification with “being an artist” made me feel special, and made me callous to the impact of many of my actions. It seemed to have given me permission to be artistically self-centered, often inconsiderate, and sometimes rude. This was combined with some degree of spousal, parental and financial irresponsibility.

The sharp rebuke I had received in the meditation room helped me to realize that it was time to figure out how to let go of the “artist self” I had been working so hard to maintain. It inspired me to allow a new consciousness that would help me dis-identify with the “artist” mantle to which I had been clinging.

I incorporated a new sort of practice into my meditations, letting myself feel into what had been asked of me by those words. Along with that, I returned to my therapist and explored the fear, shame, pain, and avoidance that I sensed were the underbelly of so much of my reactivity and false pride.

During this process, my relationship to people shifted. I talked and listened differently. Conversations were less about my drama. Other people had involved lives also. As they became more real to me, so I became more real to them. And I was deeply grateful for the changes that were occurring.

Deliberately and immediately, I had stopped referring to myself as an “artist.” If I still needed a term, I thought that “maker” seemed more appropriate. I had always appreciated and loved the talent of my hands, and since even the plumber was a kind of maker, it conveyed something more innate and less pretentious.

It pleased me that my family noticed my efforts moving towards what seemed a more fundamental humility. My wife Julie said I was easier to live with with, more helpful and better with our children.

I also discovered a measure of compassion for the “artist” identity that had defined me for so many years. I understood that, in part, the classic role of the self-centered, struggling artist might have had its place in the development of my commitment and vision in the less mature years of my career. But as an older artist, that identity no longer served me. Instead, it caused awkwardness and embarrassment.

Before going on that fateful retreat, I had meticulously cleaned the studio and prepared it for making paintings. On returning, however, I instead decided to devote my attentions to my fledgling glass jewelry business. And so, as I became more responsible to it, this part of my career began to flourish. Though the jewelry was unique and beautiful, I found I wasn’t identified with it. Pieces were sold, and some were reproduced again and again. I started working with an assistant, thus moving further away from the image of the lonely artist toiling in solitude. I was designer, maker, salesman and production manager. From this new, more open position with my work, I began to give up the judgments about the value of my artwork versus my jewelry. I began to see it all as the product of the same imagination, and arbitrary categorizations began to fall away. The knowing that it all sprung from the same fundamentally creative part of my soul made me pleased with the jewelry. From this point of view, it was fine that the product was considered “craft” in the larger world. I spoke with businesspeople and craftspeople, who enjoyed sharing their views and advice with someone who was attentive and responsive. I made new friends.

I started to exhibit the jewelry at a few high-end retail craft shows during the year. Each show taught me something. I managed my emotional reactions to the lulls in business at the booth by doing slow walking meditation. This shift towards non-duality would settle my mind and cleanse the atmosphere of the booth. I could be more present, engaged, and spontaneous with the people interested in my wares. It wasn’t just all about selling. Customers helped in the designing process by telling me what they liked and wanted. I listened and learned.

At that time, there seemed to be some sort of easy support for me from the universe. I wasn’t struggling to be different than I was. There was an underlying sense of enjoyment and alignment. Reality seemed more vivid and inviting, and identity certainly didn’t seem to be the point of it all.

The jewelry business developed a regular cash flow. Bills were paid on time, and I was better able to contribute to the family’s financial needs. I got QuickBooks. Julie was happier with me and so was I.

From time to time during that period of change, light-objects that formerly I would have called artworks, made their way into existence. They were mostly light and shadow. They were wonderful, but for some reason I wasn’t greedy about them. I didn’t “will them” or “work them” into existence. I didn’t have to be identified as an “Artist.” These light-objects came about on their own. They seemed a gift of that period, the fruition of a lesson that had begun on that retreat.

It took a couple of years for the psychic charge of that shifting and softening of identity to work its way through my experience. By then other changes wanted to come through, other inner evolutions had begun and wanted to be listened to.

I think that for many artists, giving up the “artistic specialness” would be a valuable learning, but it’s a tough shift to take on without a powerful impetus, and good support along the way.

That dramatic intervention of voices had been a perfect encounter for me. It was a unique transcendental chastisement. I had been “spoken to.” It got my attention and focused me. It helped guide me towards something I had been looking for: a new orientation of the heart.

Sydney Cash