Live territorially, not hierarchically

Steven Pressfield, the author whom I referenced in my last post, writes in his book The War of Art that we can achieve security in one of two ways: by our rank within a hierarchy or by our connection to a territory (147). All animals live in one of these ways, he explains, though, interestingly enough, humans, by default, seem to most often operate hierarchically.

It’s the one that kicks in automatically when we’re kids. We run naturally in packs an cliques; without thinking about it, we know who’s the top dog and who’s the underdog. And we know our own place. We define ourselves, instinctively it seems, by our position within the schoolyard, the gang, the club. (147)

Sometimes, though, later in life, we do explore the territorial alternative. “For some of us, this saves our lives,” he says.

The hierarchy may work, he explains, when we are in school, when we are in a small business, when we are in a village or a small town, even. But what happens when we become global citizens? Do our number of twitter followers give us status? What about our number of facebook friends? Can the size of our house, the cost of our car, the look of our clothes prove to others that we, still, are at the top of the ranks? How, in a hierarchical mindset, can you achieve self-esteem in a global society?

You cannot. The hierarchy is too big, and you become lost. You may throw out all sorts of status messages to show others that you are still a big fish, that you still matter immensely, but once you are out of that small pond, no one really cares.

Pressfield notes that for the artist – or anyone who creates (and I hope that we are all creating something within our lives) – the hierarchical orientation is fatal. This is why.

An individual who defines himself by his place in a pecking order will:
1) Compete against all others in the order
2) Evaluate his happiness/success/achievement by his rank within the hierarchy, feeling most satisfied when he’s high and most miserable when he’s low
3) Act toward others based upon their rank in the hierarchy, to the exclusion of all other factors.
4)Evaluate his every move solely by the effect it produces on others. He will act for others, dress for others, speak for others, think for others. (150)

So what happens to the art that is created? It is judged solely by the amount of

I made this small water garden - it took 2 years for the first water-lily to bloom, 3 years for the calla lily.
prestige it brings – not for the love of creation, the satisfaction of doing something you love, the knowledge that you are doing in this world what you were born to do. Pressfield explains, “the artist cannot look to others to validate his efforts or his calling…to labor in the arts for any reason other than love is prostitution” (151).

When the artist operates hierarchically, Pressfield says, he is, according to Robert McKee, the definition of a hack. “A hack, [McKee] says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn’t ask himself what’s in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for” (152). The hack distances herself from her soul, for she tries to pander to the collective interest rather than writing according to the guidance she is given from the Self.

So how do you stay in alignment with your soul as you create – and still roll with enough self-esteem to sustain you through the tough times, through the force of resistance? You claim your territory. Human territories can by physical, like animals’, but they are also psychological. “Stevie Wonder’s territory is the piano. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s is the gym. When Bill Gates pulls into the parking lot at Microsoft, he’s on his territory. When I sit down to write, I’m on mine” (154), Pressfield says.

So, a territory seems an important thing to have, psychologically. How, then, do you know your territory?

1) A territory provides sustenance. Runners know what a territory is. So do rock climbers and kayakers and yogis. Artists and entrepreneurs know what a territory is.
2) A territory sustains us without any external input. Our role is to put in effort and love; the territory absorbs this and gives it back to us in the form of well-being. When experts tell us that exercise (or any other effort requiring activity) banishes depression, this is what they mean.
3) A territory can only be claimed alone. You can team with a partner, you can work with a friend, but you only need yourself to soak up your territory’s juice.
4) A territory can only be claimed by work When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.
5) A territory returns exactly what you put in. Territories are fair. Every erg of energy you put in goes infallibly into your account. A territory never devalues. A territory never crashes. What you deposit, you get back, dollar-for-dollar. (155)

This is why your home brings you peace and comfort – you have made it a territory. Psychologically, this is why the work that you do in the world gives you confidence and purpose, because you have made it your territory. It’s deeper, though, because a territory is very personal. In a territory, you are not trying to make anyone like you, applaud you, or admire you, you are defending the very space you need in order to stay alive. You are defending your creations – the things you were put on this earth to bring to life. “When the artist works territorially, she reveres heaven. She aligns herself with the mysterious forces that power the universe and that seek, through her, to bring forth new life. By doing her work for its own sake, she sets herself at the service of these forces” (Pressfield 156). This is the mantra of every energy healer, of course: “let me be a channel for your love and healing.” It is the same with the artist: “let me be a channel for this thing that wants to be created.” With true success comes humility.

So, if you can, live by defending your territory rather than your status or place in the hierarchy. It may take baby steps, and there are ways to test your progress. For example, think to yourself:

If I were feeling really anxious, what would I do? If we would pick up the phone and call six friends, one after the other, with the aim of hearing their voices and reassuring ourselves that they still love us, we’re operating hierarchically.
We’re seeking the good opinion of others.
What would Arnold Schwarzenegger do on a freaky day? He wouldn’t phone his buddies; he’d head for the gym. He wouldn’t care if the place was empty, if he didn’t say a word to a soul. He knows that working out, all by itself, is enough to bring him back to his center.
His orientation is territorial. (158)

Another test, Pressfield says, is to ask yourself of any activity you are doing, “If I were the last person on earth, would I still do it? If you’re all alone on the planet, a hierarchical orientation makes no sense. There’s no one to impress. So, if you’d still pursue that activity, congratulations. You’re doing it territorially” (158).

Of course, it is complicated, for some of our activities are innately motivated by the knowledge that we are helping others through the act. Perhaps a better way to put it would be to say, if no one would even know that you created this piece, this essay, this barn, this blanket, would you still do it just for the love of the act of creation itself? If, by distant healing, you could cause a miracle but no one would ever know, would you still do it? You gain power by creating a territory, a psychological niche. It takes willpower, discipline, and of course great love and enthusiasm.

So, create your territory by going there, again and again, and forging your truth, forging your beauty. Give with no expectation of return. Allow yourself to be a channel. Ignore the hierarchy as best you can, and let the guidance from your soul, your Self, the divine, flow through you and into what is being created. This work that you do becomes your own through the very repetition of showing up and trying, day in and day out. The creations may not be solely yours, as all sorts of angels may have been whispering in your ears and guiding your hand on the paintbrush, but the act of creating – that is you, and that is your territory. Hold to it.

You may not be able to take all credit for your creation, but you will love it perhaps as much or more than you love yourself.

3 thoughts on “Live territorially, not hierarchically

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