When David Bowie died a few weeks ago many writers of thoughtful obituaries and eulogies tried their best to sum up the 69 years of his life in a few paragraphs. Not an easy task considering he was an artist traveling on so many creative paths. One thing all these writers agree on is that here was a man who had truly explored what it was to push the boundaries of his own personal identity. For those not familiar with Bowie’s output he was continually changing his persona in an effort to charge his creativity and challenge both himself and his audience. Where most successful artists would have held on to what worked for them, Bowie, in an effort to avoid stagnation, would change not only his musical environment but also his own identity, sometimes at a cost to his own popularity and commercial success.
In a recorded interview from 1975 he reflects…
“…I’m sort of inventing me at the moment…[I’m]self-invented.”
Considering this creative view of the ‘self’ it is no surprise to discover that Bowie had a keen interest in buddhism that went back to the mid-60s and his meeting with Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan buddhist teacher. Bowie was committed enough to buddhism to consider ordination but (thankfully!) was dissuaded by Trungpa and told to pursue his musical career. However, we can see that some of the basic ideas of buddhism filtered into Bowie’s personal philosophy, in particular when we look at some of his lyrics. One of buddhism’s central teachings is that we must accept change and impermanence as an intrinsic aspect of reality. This idea is most notably reflected in Bowie’s song Changes written only a year or two after meeting Trungpa. In the song he sings…
“Time may change me; but I can’t trace Time…”
We are subject to change but change is the one thing we can’t change. We cannot fix it or ‘trace it’.
Bowie would also have encountered in buddhism the idea that we must first of all face our own suffering if we are to achieve some sort of liberation from it. In particular this means turning towards those things we are averse to, turning ‘against the stream’ so to speak. Again in the song Changes he reflects on our aversion and suggests we…
“Turn and face the strange…”
In another song from the same period he looks more deeply at this idea of questioning ones personal identity. Who am I? What is this? In the lyrics of Quicksand, which ponders a wealth of ideas from different philosophies, the main chorus comes back to a sort of buddhist revelation…
“Don’t believe in yourself
Don’t deceive with belief
with death’s release..”
This is a fascinating summation of anatta – the buddhist concept of ‘not-self’. Anatta is a factor of reality in which we notice that nothing has independent existence, not even our own selves. All things are reliant on other things, therefore we cannot draw a distinct line between this and that – even our own personal identity cannot be seen as distinct from the world around us nor does it exist outside of this world. In Bowies’ lyrics he tells us not to believe in the fixed self, that it is an illusion and a trap – true knowledge comes with the release of this belief. His continued exploration of this idea in the constant morphing of his identity is proof of an artist intent on exploring the intangibility of his own existence.
The rejection of the self can sometimes sound a bit dark and buddhism has the habit of framing its ideas in negative terms but fundamentally anatta is a description of freedom. Once we realise that our self is just as much a construct as everything else we see how much flexibility we have in terms of how we live our lives and frame our own experience. It’s not so much that there is ‘no self’, but rather that, like Bowie, we are continually inventing ourselves – the self is a process rather than a thing. This is the source of all creativity because it accepts change and ‘process’ and more importantly it is the beginning of ‘the good life’ or eudaemonia as the philosopher Aristotle called it.
Bowie made the flexibility of identity a central part of who he was as an artist and his artistic output is a shining example of how an open and creative approach to how we perceive ourselves can yield amazing results.