This summer I got to travel around Asia for two months with a dear old friend—a novelist and playwright, and my best reader. For weeks we’d looked forward to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the massive Hindu temple complex dedicated to Vishnu. As we walked across the moat to the stone avenue leading to the temple we marveled at the scale of the place, how delightfully insignificant it made us feel. Seanan bought a cup of sugar palm juice from a lady who’d tapped one of the trees lining the avenue. He took one sip and handed it to me to finish. It was hummingbird liqueur with an undertaste of gym sock, but all the same it was a nice change from bottled water. We were spackled in sunscreen and sweating profusely.
It was dim and cool inside the temple corridors, and I was enthralled by the buxom nymphs dancing along the walls. The apsaras were depicted in trios, like the Three Graces, and they made quite a lovely welcoming committee. But it only occurred to me when we climbed upstairs to the sanctuary just how many artisans must have spent their lives carving these stones. Seanan and I paused to look out a window framed in thousands of tiny flowers in a repeating motif, and I wondered at all the exquisitely skilled craftspeople over several hundred years who had dedicated their labors here to a divine purpose. These artists must have understood—found the concept thoroughly unremarkable, even—that their work would outlive them, that many people would visit this temple over succeeding centuries and that no one would ever know their names.
I stood at that window overlooking the lower galleries and considered the anonymity of these creative labors, as the artists themselves perhaps never had. This was a trade—a calling, no doubt, but primarily a living, and yet none of these long-dead stone-carvers were any less of an artist.
As a novelist always secretly hoping my next book will do so well that I’ll see strangers reading it on the train, I wish I could approach my art as these Cambodian stone-carvers did: in a spirit of pure devotion.
And who says I can’t?
I have put myself on a rather systematic course of self improvement since my second novel went out of print back in 2011, and I found myself frustrated, angry, and increasingly broke: yoga, meditation, reading up on Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, free-form journaling and mind mapping to sniff out the need underneath my hunger for recognition. I eventually put all of that reading and contemplation into a little book called Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People. It is a self-help book for people who do not ordinarily read self help, the self-help book I wished someone had written for me.
As I wrote the book and as I talk now about the taming of the ego and all the (surprisingly enjoyable) ways we can work on resolving our feelings of jealousy and insecurity, what I always circle back to is the Hindu concept of brahman. Brahman is the cosmic soul that has temporarily separated itself into individual souls, called atman: you and me and everyone we pass on the street and all the people we’ll never know. The stone-carvers of Angkor Wat could have taught us that “atman is brahman,” and indeed they still can, for as long as those magnificent temples endure.
The second Hindu concept I keep in mind as I settle back into my daily writing routine is that of bhakti: devotion to God, or a particular avatar thereof. It brings me joy to see what I’m writing as an offering rather than evidence of my worthiness, which I have no need for anyhow. Nobody does, because in this paradigm salvation is possible for everyone. If you are ever visiting a religious building on a holy day—be it a Hindu temple, or a Buddhist temple, or a mosque, or a church—you will likely notice that, no matter how many have gathered for worship, no one is turned away.
I fervently believe we can be much happier writers and artists if we channel that ancient and soulful understanding of human creativity, before art for the glory of the divine gave way to art for the glory of the ego. This conception of creativity—evidence for which we saw all around us at Angkor Wat and many other temples in the course of our travels—is serene and inclusive, the most natural foundation for a supportive artistic community. This means that when someone else comes out with a truly excellent book or album or gallery show, you can forget all the old comparisons and anxieties and simply take pleasure in what they’ve created. Our labors are joyful, all the old frustrations and dissatisfactions fall away, and we are free.