Not many people can say they “led the creation of the iconic Facebook ‘Like’ button” and then moved onto making stick figures beautiful. This is the partial story of Leah Pearlman, creator and founder of Dharma Comics.
Dharma Comics is a popular web comic series that displays the pretty and not-so-pretty aspects of life that we all, at some point or another, encounter. Whether your heart is broken because you’ve recently discovered “he’s just not that into you,” you’re not completely satisfied with direction of your life or perhaps your family is dealing with crisis, Leah Pearlman has created a simplistically connective manner to reflect upon the “deeply personal” experiences of life.
It was during such a deeply personal, and difficult, time when Leah created her first stick figure comic strip which helped her to “express things that were heavy in a way that felt light.” Leah’s father, who was also her best friend, was battling a cancer diagnosis while at the same time it was becoming more difficult for Leah to ignore the prolonged battle she had with bulimia.
On the surface, Leah had a “successful enviable career at Facebook, friends, and a loving family, but inside she was in chaos. She was constantly racked with insecurities she couldn’t express, so she hid them behind a 15-year eating disorder, and immersed herself so fully in work she never had time to feel.”
When her father passed, Leah “quit her tech job to (literally) draw through her grief and explore her life from an honest place: the ups and downs, getting lost, getting found, the breakthroughs and the breakups.”
After six years of drawing, healing, connecting to her true self and living day-by-day from a place of heart led honesty, Leah has created a beautifully inspiring collection of uplifting drawings with her first book entitled, Drawn Together: A Dharma Comics Collection on the Curious Journey through Life and Love.
In an exclusive interview, Leah Pearlman discusses the stories behind her artwork, the importance of being in the moment, and the most unexpected part of her spiritual journey:
BJB: You had a successful career at Facebook. You co-created ‘Pages’ and the ‘Like’ button and in 2011 you decided to leave. How did you know it was time to make the transition from technology to art?
LP: I wasn’t necessarily transitioning from technology to art. I just knew I was leaving technology.
I knew it was time to change because I wasn’t happy. I was in this very successful career, my co-workers were fantastic, creative, smart and kind. Everything was right, and I wasn’t happy. I knew it wasn’t about fixing something. I had battled with bulimia for over a decade and it was getting worse.
There is a saying, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten,” and I thought, ‘I just need to change this.’
For over a decade I’d been kidding myself that my bulimia would get better and it didn’t. I needed to do something dramatically different. That was a big contributor to my knowing it was time to leave.
I was already drawing at the time, but I still felt like it was just a hobby and something I was doing to express myself. It wasn’t until years later when I realized it was the one thing I was most committed to; it was carrying me through all the change, all the healing, all the sickness, and the death.
Everything that went on in my life was change but I would still draw every single weekend.
BJB: In your ‘Drawing to Love’ video you explain how some ideas come by saying, “It’s almost like the idea was in the street and I just walked into it…” This reminds me of the idea that the “collective has needs and one person who is really open as a filter for that need will do it, and it will feel like your favorite thing.” Can you talk more about inspiration and tapping into the creative collective consciousness?
LP: The ideas seem to come more from my emotions.
The other day I spent time with someone and afterwards felt so much gratitude for that time together, and I was over flowing in that moment with appreciation. In that moment, the caption for a comic “I love spending time with you” was born out of that feeling of gratitude. A lot of my comics are born out of loss, grief or anger.
I think about how our lives are made up of a gazillion moments and it’s interesting that only certain moments we remember. The comics are born of those moments. When I’m suddenly aware that life is happening, something important is here and if I just stay in the experience without trying to determine the meaning, the comic is born.
For the collective consciousness, I think sometimes people like to think of it as this abstract thing. But I like to think of it in terms of maybe what everyone is talking about. When the conversation shifts toward something, I shift and my attention is now on that ‘thing.’ Because I’m an artist and drawing about these things, I may get access to the artistic way to illustrate what people are talking about.
BJB: Your artwork brings the vulnerability of life to the surface. How has this helped you “explore life from an honest place?”
LP: It’s funny because I was working at Facebook and I was an avid user, so I was really close to this, but I realize in retrospect, it’s very exhausting to project that one is happy and successful all the time. It’s just not true. It takes a lot of energy to create that façade. I think this is what happened with me and the bulimia.
On the surface I was trying to project one level of perfection. All my pain, sadness and my suffering would have to happen in the quiet and the dark, which would never help me to heal.
I started to find that by sharing some of the things that were hard for me, that it’s not all perfect and I’m hurting right now, for example, the pressure to not always have to be good was so much easier for me. It helped me to be present with what I was actually going through so I could meet it with healthy compassion.
BJB: What is your spiritual process to capture a concept or idea?
LP: If I’m feeling my most vulnerable, that’s not the time for me to share it, except to the people I’m most connected to. Usually when I’m through the hardest part, then I feel more comfortable to share.
I don’t really share to heal. I heal, then I share it.
BJB: The drawing “We each pop in our own time” is one of my favorites because it takes away the idea of a “late bloomer.” Which is your favorite drawing and why?
LP: My favorite one in the book is “Welcome to the present.” The little guy is pointing to the dotted lines so you can “dog ear” the page, and you can come back here whenever you like. If you “dog ear” the corner, every time you open the book you’ll be back in the present. I find that one funny.
BJB: What has been the most surprising and unexpected part of the spiritual journey for you?
LP: Life happens in moments. It’s not in the abstract.
What I mean by that is, I always thought that “following your heart” meant come up with this big fancy dream, go make it happen and then you’ll be happy. For me the path is learning that the only place to follow my heart is right now. Do I eat another bite of this mango that’s sitting next to me? Do I call my mom after I get off the phone?
Following my heart is a moment-by-moment experience. It’s nothing big. It’s small and it’s simple, and that’s been a really surprising thing for me.
The day-to-day and moment-to-moment is the path, and the path is the journey.
“Life is not lived in some distant, imagined land of someday where everything is perfect. It is lived here and now, with the reality of the way things are.”
One of life’s greatest gifts is the fact that life is difficult; because in dealing with life’s difficulties, we build invaluable depth and emotional fortitude. This depth and fortitude enables us to fulfill our deepest, most meaningful purposes.
““Dharma” is a Sanskrit word, often used in Buddhism to refer to the teachings that offer us guidance in life. Dharma can also refer to one’s own purpose or path. Your “Dharma” is what you are meant to do. Leah often says the name is twofold: Dharma Comics are comics about Dharma, but they have also proven to be her dharma, what she is meant to do.”
“If a person is in a rut long enough, they will ultimately say, “You know what? This isn’t working. Let me try something else” because pain pushes until the vision pulls.”
“Pain pushes us; it compels us to keep looking for an answer in order to find a way out of pain. Pain pushes until we have a vision. Once you have a vision, and you begin to consciously walk in the direction of that vision, you no longer need pain to push you.”
What now “pulls” Leah Pearlman is the inspiration she is now able to draw from, literally and figuratively, by whole-heartedly being in the moment.
By being in the moment, and by being with our heart, we all have the possibility to be Drawn Together and “find stillness in the chaos.”
For more information on Leah Pearlman or to purchase Drawn Together: A Dharma Comics Collection on the Curious Journey through Life and Love, you can log onto http://dharmacomics.com/.