An Artist's Guide: How to Float When You Feel Like Drowning

One of the essential requirements for true spiritual growth and deep personal transformation is coming to peace with pain.
— Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul

In a moment of stress, have you ever felt like you’re drowning on land? Your bones become stiff. Your neck gets sore. Your chest begins to cave inward, searching for shelter. It’s your soul, turtling.

It usually begins with a trigger of some sort. It could be a wave of urgent news or a rough night of drinking. A gig that’s fallen through. A tough conversation that’s yet to happen. Sexual frustration pent up for too long. An election cycle that’s gone beyond rock bottom. Too much toxic media. It’s the sound of shit hitting the fan, before you know what that shit really is. A pile of tasks, responsibilities, and demands creeping up with ever-increasing weight on your back. No matter how minor or peripheral these things are in reality, every pebble feels like a boulder. And so begins the spiral.

Trust me, I know the feeling. I suffer, and in my suffering I feel isolated. When I feel isolated, I feel ashamed. And so I protect myself, with distance.

Shoulders a little colder, demeanor less sweet, you might hear me disguising this behavior as “all business.” I’m in “workmode” right now. Not exactly. I’m just trying to keep my head above water.

Closing your heart does not really protect you from anything; it just cuts you off from your source of energy. In the end, it only serves to lock you inside.
— The Untethered Soul

I keep busy to avoid confronting the emotions I’ll inevitably need to face. I keep busy to validate my existence and convince myself I still matter. But these are only temporary fixes.

What I've discovered I need to do in these cases is almost always the opposite of what’s natural. I’ve taken a few cues from my experience and a powerful book called The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself  that have helped:

Image: Justin Luebke

  1. Don’t deny, recognize. It’s easy to pretend things are okay when they are not. After all, we’ve been playing this role all our lives, personalizing and refining our alibis for different audiences. Especially if you’re a performer. It’s the way you maintain status quo around your friends, your family, your business partners, your fans, and even your detractors. But the most damaging lies are not the ones we tell others, but the ones we tell ourselves. Listen, it’s fine to not be fine. Recognize and embrace it, not as a weakness but as an essential human trait. Just take it as a not-so-friendly reminder: I am not a robot. Robots are boring. Humans are…not. 

  2. Instead of shutting down, open up. The shame spiral that many of us experience as artists and humans is not so much downward as it is inward - deep into our subconscious, into our thoughts, and into our fears. Once you start it’s hard to stop. But try taking a deep breath and making U-turn. Visualize those gears slowing coming to a halt and changing direction. For me it means asking, “How can I expand today instead of contract?” “Who can I reach out to?” “Where can I give?” It’s nothing close to what I feel like doing right now, but it just might help. It definitely can't hurt. 

  3. Turn the mundane into magic. I can always tell when I’m going through a rough patch because it’s all over my apartment. It’s in the unfolded laundry and the dishes in the sink and the trash that’s too full. Sometimes all it takes is a little cleaning to get some momentum back. Corny but necessary stuff. Sweep the floors. Light a candle. Go for a walk. Phone a friend. Cook a meal. Get domestic with it. Of course if you do these tasks mindlessly they can be just as distracting as the other busy work we use to avoid our emotions, but with a present mind, focused and in the moment, they become a form of meditation. What seems like a waste of time has now become a way out. 

  4. When in doubt, make more art. 

Understand that it is your attempt to get special experiences from life that makes you miss the actual experience of life.
— The Untethered Soul

There’s no way to know when or where that drowning feeling will hit. But when it does, know you’re not alone. With practice, patience, and self-acceptance there’s still hope to turn that flailing into floating.