What Artists Want

Photo: Mt. Tam view. Thanks to Ethan Dow on Unsplash!

In the movie What Women Want, actor Mel Gibson plays an advertising executive who uses women cynically. As his boss remarks, he knows how to get what he wants from women, but he doesn’t know how women think. Gibson can’t write ads for women, so his boss hires a woman, played by Helen Hunt, to create ads that will appeal to manufacturers of women’s products.

Meanwhile, Gibson falls in a bathtub with a hair dryer and is shocked into unconsciousness. When he wakes up, he can hear what women are thinking. It’s a funny film and surprisingly engaging, I think perhaps because it shares an element with nearly all stories that have the power to involve and inspire us: a protagonist who learns difficult lessons, and as a result becomes more than he was. As Gibson’s character learns to see the world through women’s eyes, his heart opens and he is moved to offer his female co-workers his friendship and support.

Thinking about the film, I recalled my run last weekend, and I reflected on how much more satisfying the experience of expanding awareness is than its mirror-image in movies and books.

I began the run feeling depressed and lethargic. I prayed, “I’m finding it hard to feel positive about much of anything in my life.” But I resolved that if inspiration and positive attitudes wouldn’t come spontaneously, I would do my best to create them.

Blues Brother Gary flogs running shoes.

I thought of my friend Gary Fanelli. Gary is in his fifties and still a high-level age-group competitor, running the half-marathon in 1:13 and 10 miles in under 55 minutes. Gary is famous for his positive attitude and his wacky sense of humor. In the 1970s he would show up at races dressed in a Blues Brothers outfit. A picture of Gary, replete in porkpie hat, dark shades, white dress shirt, coat, tie, and running shorts appeared in Runner’s World. When sports psychologists studying positive attitudes in champion runners tested Gary, his scores were the highest they’d ever seen.

Running along feeling depressed and directionless, I wondered how Gary managed to bring so much positive energy to his running. I decided that it’s a question of perspective. Any experience is positive, if we can see it from the right angle. I resolved to pour my best energy into enjoying the day, and so fight free of my dark mood. And in His inimitable way, God decided to help.

I was running on Mt. Tamalpais. After a stop at the Pan Toll ranger station to fill my water bottles, I took a wrong turn. I faced a decision: I could go straight up an incredibly steep, grassy hill or turn around and take the long way back to the trail.

Inching painfully up the slope, knee to nose, I panted with silent laughter, “Why are you doing this to me, God?” But the energy I generated was the cure for my bum mood. Emerging on the main trail again, I felt renewed, spirits restored.

Further enlightenment awaited. It often does on Mt. Tam, especially on the high ridges. Mt. Tam is one of the loveliest places on earth. Green meadows flow down 2000’ over hillsides punctuated with groves of oak and evergreen to the blue Pacific below.

The author on Mt. Tam in fitter days.

The ridgetop trails were wonderfully harmonious and serene. Couples were seated on rocky outcrops under windblown cypress trees, absorbing the amazing views. On a grassy knoll an Australian aborigine played a didgeridoo for friends sprawled in a circle on the grass.

I paused to take pictures with my little camera, then began the descent back through Pan Toll. I was wearing my heart monitor, and for the umpteenth time I was able to confirm that science, spirit, and the runner’s art are in accord. I kept my heart rate in the “harmony zone,” that region where I feel body, mind and spirit falling naturally in sync, while I practiced inward prayers and let my awareness open naturally to the welcoming arms of nature. It was a lovely afternoon.

The four-mile descent was jarring, but with an easy pace and a joyous mental attitude, I managed to stay in the zone. I’m learning to respect the power of balance, the importance of finding that place inside where mind and feeling, will and soul coalesce.

Back to the movies. It’s almost a sure thing in the arts, given competent craftsmanship, that if the artist can make his creation expansive, human hearts will respond. We’re attracted to works that reveal paths to increasing awareness and joy, just as we’re attracted to heroes and mentors who point the direction toward our own expanded awareness.

The way to get more happiness is to love more, serve more, live with greater energy, grow in wisdom, let go of petty self-concerns, and embrace a greater Self. That’s the formula. How well it succeeds in the movies depends partly on the craft of the actors and crew, but far more on the wisdom of the creator-artist.

Shakespeare must have expanded his heart greatly to be able to write about life’s grand themes. Lesser authors may not be able to embrace those vistas with their narrower vision, but they can be expansive at the level they know. An advertising executive learns to think like a woman, and in expanding his heart he becomes a better man.

Rambhakta is the author of The Joyful Athlete.

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