Maybe you’ve heard those words before. “Disillusionment always precedes enlightenment.” I’ve heard them a lot, and often they come from inside my own head, a hopeful reminder not to let myself get too discouraged.
I have no idea where I first heard them, although I suspect it probably was around the time I first began learning about meditation. Before sitting down here to write this post, I did a quick online search of the phrase but couldn’t find any agreed-upon source. It’s simply part of our culture, I suppose.
Is it true?
I can’t say for certain that it’s always true, but I’ve seen the principle at work in my art studies lately. I’ve been through what you might call a “rough patch” in recent weeks. I’d reached a turning point, I guess, and I sometimes felt I was losing my way. I’d learned the basics of drawing, and I wasn’t sure I could progress beyond that point. Whereas my progress seemed swift and sure when I first began learning to draw last year, I now seemed to be making little — if any — improvement.
Had I come to the end of the road?
I began to fear the worst when I followed a quick 6-day drawing tutorial. Loosen up, be more free with your marks. That was one of the lessons. Look for shapes, especially the negative shapes. That was another lesson. The exercises included gesture drawing, speed drawing, and trying different grips for holding the pencil.
I made some awful drawings. Really awful. So awful I wouldn’t dare post them here or anywhere. The painful experience seemed to confirm my worst fears. I would never advance beyond the “basic” stages. I just didn’t have whatever it is that makes a real artist.
At the same time, I was also reading Your Artist’s Brain by Carl Purcell. What brain? I don’t have an artist’s brain, I realized, once again lamenting the fact that I’d obviously come to the end of my journey. I was never going to get any better. Further attempts to improve were not only unsuccessful but were actually setting me back, it seemed.
Truly, the drawings I did looked almost as bad as the ones I’d made when I first started drawing. In so many ways, they were actually worse, it seemed, because I was no longer an absolute beginner. I wrote about my frustrations when I tried drawing a wolf. I was supposed to be getting better. I was supposed to know a little about what I was doing. Why was it suddenly so hard to draw even the simplest thing?
What kept me going through this dark time was that old saying: Disillusionment always precedes enlightenment.
Was it possible, I wondered, that this horrible artistic slump might actually be the beginning of a giant leap forward? I compared it to yoga — an absurd analogy, perhaps. In yoga, the body sometimes goes through a “setting” phase where the poses seem stiff and awkward. That stage, however, means the body is getting ready to loosen up a little more and that soon the practitioner will see even greater freedom of movement.
Could this be true in art, too?
I considered the possibility, scoffed at it a bit, but clung to the idea like a life-line. I didn’t want to give up. I wanted to somehow hang on through all the discouragement and hopefully come out on the other side.
And, I did.
Despite all my frustrations and no matter how close I came to giving up — and believe me, I did come close — I occasionally glanced down at my sketchbook and saw something incredible looking back at me.
I saw this mouth:
I saw this wise old man:
I saw a quick little sketch of mushrooms:
The photos I’m sharing here aren’t very good ones — I’m using my cell phone — but even so, the images show artwork that’s moving beyond the basic, beginner’s level. I found dozens of these surprising “little gems” scattered through my sketchbook — along with all those awful drawings I’d made.
Of course, I’d been focusing only on the horrible drawings and hardly even noticing the good ones. I had the idea set in my head that I just couldn’t draw, and so I acknowledged only those sketches that confirmed my existing belief.
Later, I realized that just as the body “sets” itself in yoga, my artistic body — or brain — had done much the same thing. All the while I’d thought I was stuck, I was actually preparing for a leap forward. My disillusionment had definitely led to enlightenment, and I couldn’t have been more excited when I opened my eyes and actually saw the progress I’d been making all along.
Yes, I’ve learned the basics of drawing, and I’m now learning how to improve upon those basic skills. As my husband affirmed, I have graduated to a new level in my art studies, and I’ve learned an important lesson about life.
Never give up. There are going to be dark days. There will be times of disillusionment. There will be those rough patches and bumps in the road, but don’t ever give up. Keep going. Keep drawing. Keep believing that you can do this. Most of all, when you get discouraged, remember that disillusionment always precedes enlightenment, at least, that’s what I’ve always heard.
It was hard to believe it could be true, but holding on to those words pulled me through.