What Would the Dalai Lama Do?
Contemplating creativity, compassion, mindfulness, and body image with singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer
Since entering public awareness as the leader of the alternative rock act The Dresden Dolls, singer/pianist/songwriter Amanda Palmer has become one of the most unique and compelling solo artists in modern music. Her new book The Art of Asking is an extension of her 2013 TED talk on learning to accept help from other people.
You practice yoga and meditation regularly. Do you have any concern that by stilling your mind, you might disrupt the flow of ideas that you need as an artist?
No. I think there’s a common misconception and fear that a mindfulness practice or a yoga practice is dangerous for an artist or musician because it can turn you into a willowy, flaky, uninteresting person. Nothing could be further from the truth. It exercises your mind so that you can become more intense, so that you can dig deeper into an emotion. Honestly, it’s about control. All you need to do is look at martial arts experts, and they understand this deeply: you need to be very focused and very still to [defeat your opponent]. It’s the same thing in art.
In your book, you mention that when someone writes or says something unkind about you, you imagine how the Dalai Lama would react. Can you elaborate?
I just have seen so many people in pain, and I’ve seen so much pain manifest into anger, that I feel like it’s a lifelong practice to stay mindful of the fact that anybody attacking you is drawing on the source of their own pain and fear. And it can be really hard to do. It’s hardest to do with the people who are closest to you: your parents, your spouse, or the people who really can hurt you, because they’re so close to home. But if you’re able to look at that person and reframe them and look at their own pain, their own trauma, their issues, how they’ve suffered, it can be really hard to hold on to anger.
Aren’t there times when you find yourself thinking, “What would be so wrong with just getting angry at this person?”
Oh, well, I still get mad all the time! Emotions are real. Ignoring them and repressing them—that’s another dangerous direction to go in. I think it’s a matter of how quickly you can observe and drop your reaction. Also, I think as a good artist, it’s a skill you learn: how deeply can you feel something, and how quickly can you let it go? That’s what you do onstage: you have to feel very deeply, very authentically, very quickly, and then five minutes later, you need to be somewhere else. You have to become a skilled practitioner at feeling deeply and letting go.
As you discuss in your book, one of the turning points in your career was when your record label thought you were showing too much belly fat in your “Leeds United” video. What went on in your mind when they told you they wanted to edit those images out?
Well, I wasn’t a pop star, so it confused me when the label wanted to censor me. It seemed very clear to me that my audience and my intended audience weren’t expecting a supermodel; they were expecting Amanda Palmer! One of the things that draws people to me and to the music is the fact that I’m not interested in showing them a perfect image at all. I fight against that with every fiber of my body, and I struggle with it every time I see an image of myself that feels ugly or imperfect. I have to make those choices for myself. All artists—especially female artists—deal with this image dance, because there’s a fine line between letting yourself appear completely natural, but then Photoshopping out the giant, distracting zit on the side of your face. Everyone draws their lines in different places. I never draw a hard set of rules. I just fly by the seat of my pants every second, and I have to ask myself the question fifty times a day: what’s the most authentic decision, and whatever decision you make, would you be honest about it with your friends and your fans? As long as you can be up-front about the decisions you’re making, you can make any decision you want. That’s kind of how I feel about feminism in general: it isn't about a strict set of choices one way or another; it's about your own relationship with your authenticity and your ability to stand by it.
As an artist, do you see yourself as a conduit for some kind of independent force, or do you feel that you’re the one doing the creating?
You know, I don’t have the answer to that question, and I’m glad. Inspiration is so elusive, and it comes to every artist in a different form. I have actually found that the best way to approach that question, for me, is not to think about it too hard, because I don’t want to chase away whatever it is that makes it possible for me to write music and think creatively. I want to drive my car; I don’t need to know how the engine works! But I think that everyone is inherently creative. Creativity is basically just about making choices and connecting two ideas or being able to put a pen on paper and draw an image. Anyone can do it. The rest is just a matter of degree and practice. One thing that drives me crazy about the way our culture is set up is how black-and-white we make the idea of being creative. I see families doing it all the time with their kids: “This one is our creative one, and this is the one that’s good at math.” I’ve never met a child who wasn’t creative. So, one thing I think is really important for us to remember is that artists aren’t special! We all have artistic ingredients. We can choose to use them or not use them; we can choose to apply them towards cooking, architecture, childrearing, or music, but I think the minute you define yourself too strictly, you’re shutting off worlds of possibility. Wherever the muse comes from, and whatever it is—we may not be able to define it, but one thing I know for sure is that it dwells within all of us. You just need to be listening to hear it.