Worthy Thoughts and Unworthy Thoughts

I’ve been on the road for the past three weeks. That’s never good for me. Though I’ve seen a bunch of friends I wanted to see and done a lot of stuff that needed to be done, I find myself (right now in the United lounge at JFK) flagging and faltering. I can’t work when I’m traveling. The toll it takes is on my spirit. Unworthy thoughts pile up, unalleviated by worthy ones.


The lounge at JFK

I don’t know about you but when I wake up in the morning, all kinds of incendiary crap is rolling around in my head. Grievances, complaints, bitching to myself. I work myself into a lather over perceived slights and imagined injustices. I just got an e-mail this morning, out of the blue, from a guy who wants me to send him 30 copies of War of Art for free. Should I waste even one milli-second of my time thinking about this? But instead it’s rattling around in my brain like a ball bearing in a pinball machine. Why? Because I’m not working.

I’ve been taking classes back home in Mussar (pronounced moo-SAHR), the code of ethics and spiritual discipline developed by the Kabbalistic rabbis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The teacher is Rabbi Mordecai Finley. He talks a lot about “the upper realm” and “the lower realm.” The upper realm is our higher nature, spirit/heaven/”neshama”/the soul. The lower realm is that ball bearing clattering around in my skull.

I wake up in the lower realm. That seems to be my default setting. I have to claw my way out of it. Here are the ways that work for me: love, physical exercise, service, generosity or kindness to others. And work.

One of the reasons I like Hemingway so much (above and beyond his fiction) is the dude’s attitude toward his work. Have you read the past two weeks’ posts—the Hemingway/Plimpton interview from the Paris Review, Spring 1958. I imagine I’m irritating quite a few readers by running that stuff, but I love Hemingway’s attitude. He’s hard-core, he’s old school. He’s a seeker and an ascetic and a true servant of the Muse.

What I like most about Hemingway’s mind-set is that he shoots for the stars. He’s trying really hard to be really good. Say what you will about him, the guy changed fiction writing in the 20th century. He’s up there in my mind with Gershwin and Picasso and Blind Snooks Eaglin. But even the rest of us, who aren’t going to get there … we need to strive like he did.

Labor toward excellence is an antidote to the lower realm. The lower realm is mediocrity. It’s ego. It’s stuck-in-the-self. It’s petty. It’s self-concerned, self-absorbed and self-obsessed. The upper realm—forgive the cliché—is truth, beauty and justice. It’s a guy beating his brains out to write one good declarative sentence.

The lower realm is belief in instant gratification. The lower realm is distraction. The lower realm is shallowness. It’s Resistance; it’s ego-centeredness. It’s all those forces, internal and external, that keep us earthbound, timebound and ball-bearing-bound. Like Hemingway, I need to write one decent sentence. I need to think one honest thought. On the road these past three weeks I’ve been stuck in airports watching Good Morning America. Please.

I gotta get back to work.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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  1. Paul C on July 27, 2011 at 4:45 am

    I was in a snarly mood until I read this. Thanks for your work.

  2. Regina on July 27, 2011 at 5:01 am

    Thought you knew where “there” is did you? Yeah, me too.
    She’ll tell you when she’s ready and not a minute before. 🙂

  3. Michael Kelberer on July 27, 2011 at 5:29 am

    Ditto what Paul C said – thanks Steven.

  4. Scott Oden on July 27, 2011 at 5:32 am

    I can sympathize. I’m having a much harder time getting out of the lower realm lately. What’s to be done when even work provides little solace? (You re-read The War of Art, Do the Work, and The Warrior Ethos, that’s what!)

    Great post!

    • Jim Rodgers on July 27, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      Is this the same Scott Oden that wrote Memnon? If so, how are you doing you Auburn fan? When’s your next book coming out?

      • Scott Oden on July 27, 2011 at 9:21 pm

        Doing great, Jim! Got one coming out in ’12 or ’13 called “Serpent of Hellas,” about the battle of Artemisium in 480 BC; my last was “The Lion of Cairo,” which came out this past December.

        How are things going with you?

        (And apologies to Mr. Pressfield for the self-promo!)

  5. Tina on July 27, 2011 at 5:34 am

    That picture…the lowest of the realms, hell!

  6. Sonja Eaton on July 27, 2011 at 6:03 am

    That was awesome! (that “GMA” line was the best!) Keep the faith, Steven!

  7. Helmut on July 27, 2011 at 6:20 am

    We are in the realm we in because we choose to be there. There are always a gizillian excuses for feeling crappy, but in the end we choose to allow our circumstances to decide how we feel instead of taking the responsibility to make that decision for ourselves.
    Of course, nothing is as simple as a comment on a blog would make it appear, but it always comes down to choice.

  8. Lillli Day on July 27, 2011 at 7:41 am

    I love the upper realm/lower realm way of looking at that divide between our best selves and our negative, whiny, not-so-best-selves. I tend to be a very visual thinker, and being able to separate and actually “see” the segregation of those two halves should help me come up with my own ways to cross over into the light when I’m having a crappy day, thanks for the little philosophy lesson Steven!

  9. Steven on July 27, 2011 at 7:52 am

    Just finished your War of Art. Fantastic. And I got to work and my secretary gave me a big stack of lower realm stuff. Thanks for helping me finding my center.

  10. Tanner on July 27, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Inspiring words from one of our time’s most inspirational thinkers and writers.

    If we start each day in the lower realm then at least we know what must be done every day. Every day the purpose becomes doing the work that can get us to that higher realm. That’s something to look forward to, I’d think.

    Thanks for all that you do Steven.

  11. Mike Byrne on July 27, 2011 at 8:13 am

    I had similar thoughts a few nights ago when I posted – “If we put ourselves in the middle of the noise, and we stay there, are we not then noise?”

  12. Randy Stuart on July 27, 2011 at 9:00 am


    Personally, I loved the Hemingway posts. You can almost hear his annoyance at what he considers inane questions from the interviewer. Hilarious, like the grumpy old man annoyed at the neighbor’s dog who keeps crapping in his yard.

    Recently, I watched a video of Tony Robbins and he said something to the effect of: “Commit to mastery. Most people dabble. Go all in, consistently measuring your progress…for things to change and get better, YOU have to change and get better.”

    That’s how you kick Resistances butt.

    Great posts as always Steve. Keep up the good work.

  13. Lori Benton on July 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

    Oh, those little foxes. I went through cancer, years ago, with the peace that passes understanding, but got snarled up inside on Monday after the clerk neglected to put the milk I bought back in my cart and I didn’t notice until I was home. That tiny ball bearing pinged around for far too long. I think I’ll go write 1000 words now and then be very, very thankful about it.

  14. Shannon on July 27, 2011 at 11:24 am

    I’ve been in the upper realm for two weeks now because of you sharing the Hemingway interview. So at least you did that.

  15. Maggy on July 27, 2011 at 11:58 am

    How lovely to read a blog from you about the Nefesh and the Neshamah Steven. Sounds like a really great teacher you’ve got.
    Yes, the lower mind is subject to the habitual thoughts that think they rule us (and so often do).
    I’ve been studying and writing about Kabbalah for 20 years now and it’s helped me immeasurably in overcoming resistance and understanding the levels of my psyche.
    The kind I study is pre-16th century which still held the conviction that the world was perfect rather than flawed. It’s funny who prefers which tradition – again according to our Nefesh and Neshamah I guess.
    One thing’s for sure, the Muse has a really hard time getting through when the Nefesh is in charge!
    Thanks again.

  16. Derek on July 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I enjoyed the Hemingway interview and I even printed it out to re-read and share it. I especially loved his advice for someone who wants to be a writer (hanging, too funny). I never tried writing standing up, but these days I am writing on the bus where lower realm conversations lurk.

  17. Vivienne Grainger on July 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    It’s astonishing how “right” the simple work of ordering words, ordering sentences, the thought and reason behind ordering itself, can put us.
    Unless it is being shut up into a variety of metal boxes throughout the day that knocks you from your center, have you some way to put words down in order on waking?
    If not, breathe, get lots of B vitamins, drink water copiously but stop before you slosh. I’ve no better advice, alas.

  18. Ann on July 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Was it Seth Godin who asked for the freebies?
    Can’t believe he’d be strapped for cash! 🙂

  19. Tony Monterasteli on July 27, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    In the interview, Hemingway said he found it easy to work in far-flung places, Havana, Paris. Except for visits from friends, which already took up too much time. Today, with technology, it’s possible to work from the airport or wherever while traveling. But it’s hard. I’ve always feel this way when traveling, even when I have a computer and I could be working. Resistance seems to double up when traveling.

  20. Dennis on July 27, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Hope you did not send the 30 copies.

  21. Howard Stein on July 27, 2011 at 7:36 pm

    First, thank you for posting the Hemingway piece. I flew it wide. I am currently reading The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. I resisted it, thinking, oh, I’m an old pro at the ‘habit’, won’t learn much there. Wrong. She is an acute, obsessed powerhouse charging after the finest levels of her art and she is all work. You know what you have to do. Your harshness with yourself must be the old marine barking. Thanks for your site, your effort. It rubs off on me when I need it.

  22. Steve - CrossFit Ocean City on July 28, 2011 at 4:15 am

    Irks me when someone wants me to give my work away for free. I decide when and how I give away free stuff. Those thoughts linger in my head for long periods of time as well. It’s as though the one asking for free stuff is always the guy who never earned it in the first place. Hard to let go of those thoughts. Glad to know others feel the same.

    The lower realm vs. the upper realm. Love that concept.

  23. skip on July 28, 2011 at 5:50 am

    you need a vacation.

  24. Denise on July 28, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Here’s some great inspiration from a fellow writer (and a spiritual one, too)… check out Tom Evans at http://www.thebookwrite.com

    Have you tried – as you begin falling asleep – setting your intention with Spirit’s help, to awaken refreshed, happy and full of creative ideas? Please do, and will you report it here? I so love reading you, Mr. Pressfield. Thank you for being.


  25. Jack on July 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Please don’t announce it if you decide to give that guy 30 free copies. I’m afraid I’ll have to jump on that bandwagon if you’re going to go there.

  26. Downright Red on July 28, 2011 at 4:56 pm

    As always, your willingness to risk and strive helps me get out of my own lower realm. Thank you for the endless encouragement in War of Art.

  27. don on July 29, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Great reminder to “do the work” and catch myself being distracted.

  28. Ulla Lauridsen on July 30, 2011 at 2:08 am

    How annoying for you. I fall asleep with all those grievances and annoyances rattling around in my head, but wake up without them.
    I think you should have a great book on your bedside table and just wake up, grab it and read, until the lower thoughts retreat.

  29. Liz Wallace on July 30, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    War of art changed my life. Thnx for post. Work and reverence for creativity is antidote for a lotta crap. Still good to screw around now n then tho!

  30. Tom on July 31, 2011 at 10:01 am

    Just give it up brother, give till it hurts. I someone asks and it rattles around your head, set it free, give it up. You won’t regret it!
    I love you man.

  31. Drew on July 31, 2011 at 11:29 am

    Heartfelt thanks for posting. I love traveling but have the same hindrances…I wonder if my Muse has a hard time catching up top me while on the road?

  32. Diane S. on July 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Right there with you. Just returned from Kenya & there was no time to write fiction so am itching to get back to it (but first I have to catch up on sleep!)

  33. Annette on August 3, 2011 at 12:35 am

    Hi Steve,
    I was reading on my way to work this morning (“Defy Gravity” by Caroline Myss) and she talks about spiritual congruence. One of her advice: “Judgment anchors you to the person or thing you judge, making you its servant. Judge others too harsly and you become their prisoner”.
    In the lower realm we have a lot of judgemental thoughts, we become prisoners. Its when you move up to the upper realm you become spiritually congruent and you can free yourself.
    Thank you for another great post.

  34. Cara Moulds on August 4, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    This was just the post I needed to read tonight. I usually wake in the upper realm and stay there until I go to work (i.e. job that pays the bills). When I am home doing my own work (writing, reading, thinking), I live in the upper realm. After several weeks of vacation being home doing my own work, I had a conversation with a job colleague today, which pulled me right down to the lower realm of mediocrity and believing this is all there is. It’s amazing how quickly our Egos can deflate possibilities, dreams and visions. Thank you for this post!
    (By the way, Do the Work is our featured book on our website right now. Just posted two articles on it this week. Two more next week. Thank you for writing it. It’s really changed the way I think.)

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