A large number of people end up as adults who have little or no sense of themselves as legitimate creators. This blog explores the idea of creativity in its widest sense (painting, dancing, felting, cooking, writing, poetry, film-making etc.) and starts with the question 'how do we inhibit and block our naturally creative response to life?'
Genuine art has the power to awaken and liberate. The renowned meditation master and artist Chögyam Trungpa called this type of art “dharma art”—any creative work that springs from an awakened state of mind, characterized by directness, unselfconsciousness, and nonaggression. Dharma art provides a vehicle to appreciate the nature of things as they are and express it without any struggle or desire to achieve. A work of dharma art brings out the goodness and dignity of the situation it reflects—dignity that comes from the artist’s interest in the details of life and sense of appreciation for experience. Trungpa shows how the principles of dharma art extend to everyday life: any activity can provide an opportunity to relax and open our senses to the phenomenal world. Reposted from Mairi Campbell's facebook page
I would like to thank all of you who have visited this blog over the year. Knowing that, from time to time, people come in here and read, or to look, means a lot to me. It helps me to feel connected to the wider world, as I attempt to carve my way into this new creative life. Thank you. Happy Solstice!
You often hear people say this when they're watching very skilled musicians, or perhaps an artist doing a portrait on the spot. But I read somewhere once (probably in Indirect Procedures?) that the reason that very skilled people 'make it look easy' is because for them it is easy. They don't push beyond what they can do easily. They don't strain for notes that they can barely reach, or try to play faster than is comfortable; they play completely within their comfort zone. Which seems to fit with Paul Ortel's idea about 'following the juice, following the fun, looking for the stream that is open'.
It all goes against the cultural grain about practice and effort and strain and difficulty and misery and depression and impossibility. But perhaps all the torture and strain arises out of not understanding how you get in your own way with all your intentions and trying; all your concepts and plans and desires.
The more I abandon any idea about making art that I can explain, or hold up against other artists, the more I feel free to explore. And the more I stop thinking about whether or not the songs that have started coming follow the form that songs are supposed to, or use progressions that accord with music theory, the more they start to become free just to be themselves.
It's like thinking that you saw a bird of paradise flit across the edge of your vision. My most recent song is pirouetting in delight that I'm no longer asking it to be good or bad. It suddenly feels so free...
I recently found myself starting to write songs. Or, should I say, some songs recently wrote themselves. I fell in love with some chords and let the words come.
Follow the juice. Outsmart yourself by following the fun.
Look for the stream that is open.
And then? Well, then I wanted to share them. How revealing is that? How tortuous for the ego? Not just the fact that my voice is still finding itself and goes thin and cracks when I sing 'in front of people', but now the song itself has come from me. Could anything BE more revealing, more terrifying?
But the desire to share what had appeared was even stronger than the shrieking ego. Luckily for me, I've begun to understand the difference between playing for a random audience, and being witnessed by Authentic Artist participants, who have all been introduced to the idea of receiving what you offer without feeling they're expected to say something encouraging or make a judgement.
I had two opportunities to do it this week. And I noticed something interesting. That after I'd sung the song, and it had been received, everything went calm and peaceful. There was nothing. Like, nothing. Whatever it is that the ego so fears and dreads about the very idea of exposing itself, of being unprotected 'in front of' others, is a chimera, a puff of hot air.
You sing the song. Your voice shakes, it isn't perfect. No-one laughs, no-one says, how brilliant you are. It all just is. In its right place in the world. Received, shared, heard. End of. So different from what we've all been brought up to associate this kind of thing with - Is it good? Do a number of people agree that it's good? Will you be recognised, celebrated, will you make money from it? Even if you are going for the recognition thing, the truth is that some people will like it, and some people won't. Your responsibility is to let it come, and then share it. The end.
It seems that the more I share what comes, the freer I become. When I'm locked up in my head, keeping it all to myself out of fear and hesitancy and self-consciousness, sharing it seems like unimaginable exposure - a source of potential danger to the fragile ego. I feel as if my whole self, my integral being, my sense of wholeness, is under threat at the very idea of sharing what's come through. But when I actually do it, in a sense, nothing happens. And then I think, oh, if that's all it is, well, I can do some more, and do it without fear.
When I'm all tangled up in emotions created by unexamined demons running riot in my subconscious, I'm unable to perceive the reality of the situation, which is that it's not any kind of deal at all, let alone a big one.
The world is, in fact, entirely neutral. The clouds are not concerned about my petty, inward-turning fears. The rain falls, regardless, and will return my precious painting to the earth within minutes of my laying it on the ground.
Locked up in my internal vacuum, I've somehow learnt to believe that the only thing that will validate my creative courage is applause. But that doesn't seem to be how it works out. Even if I get the odd pat on the back, the world is largely indifferent to me, and to my endeavours. The only applause I truly need is applause from myself. Not for being special or clever or different, but for having the courage to continue making the work, regardless of what comes out, regardless of whether or not it gets attention.
The conversation is between me and the universe, not me and an imaginary audience.
I'm really quite pleased with this 'three pieces of work a day' thing. It makes me do something when usually I would have decided that it's too late in the day (literally, not metaphorically!); experiment with colours that I think I don't like, work with ideas that usually wouldn't have occurred to me. Basically, do more stuff, and think less about it. Good.
I've been looking for so long for some kind of container for my daily process... one that's loose enough to allow me the sense of freedom that I crave, but structured enough to make something happen. This month I've started an arbitrary idea of producing, or at least working on, three pieces a day - and it's working surprisingly well.
It's strange to watch the way that even a completely made up thing like this seems to fool the mind into thinking that it has to do what it's told. When I can do anything, I often don't know where or how to start, and quite often, distracting myself like crazy, I end up doing nothing at all. But this seems to tap into that completion thing; the observation that human minds seem to respond to the idea of finishing things (you try to get to the end of your list; think you'll just finish off that last X before you have a break...).
The inner beagle is a joke now in my house about this structure! In the same way that people who have dogs say that they have them to make them go out for a walk every day, I have to walk my inner beagle three times a day.
'A piece', incidentally, can be a line of water colour or a circle made with chalk - if I'm busy it can be the quickest thing imaginable. It's amazing how often just 'having' to do this gets me started....
'...Music does not touch merely the mind and the senses; it engages that ancient and primeval presence we call soul. The soul is never fully at home in the social world we inhabit. It is too large for our contained, managed lives. Indeed, it is surprising that the soul seems to accommodate us and permit us to continue within the fixed and linear identities we have built for ourselves. Perhaps in our times of confusion and forsakenness the soul is asserting itself, endeavouring to draw us aside in order to speak to our hearts. Upheavals in life are often times when the soul has become too smothered; it needs to push through the layers of surface under which it is buried. In essence, the soul is the force of remembrance within us. It reminds us that we are children of the eternal and that our time on earth is meant to be a pilgrimage of growth and creativity. This is what music does. It evokes a world where that ancient beauty can resonate within us again. The eternal echoing of music reclaims us for a while for our true longing.' John O'Donohue, 2004:67, Beauty Harper Perennial .
It occurs to me that one of the things that perhaps might be happening when you first start painting (and perhaps forever, I'm not sure...) is that you actually have to get used to the sort of stuff that comes out.
Whatever the idea or conceptual intention for your painting may be, perhaps the thing itself, when it comes, is always something of a surprise, even a shock (unless, I suppose, you find something you like doing and then just keep repeating it).
In response to that shock various things might happen. Your critic might rear up and start the judgement game. Your perfectionist might start her nitpicking ways. You might feel depressed, or dissatisfied.
But what if all of this was just an afterthought, a reaction to the surprise of creativity, the shocking reality of radical novelty? Perhaps we don't expect to shock ourselves, to find ourselves the source of something previously unknown.
I'm completely amazed at how often I see, with hindsight, that I've unconsciously assumed that I've finally 'found the focus' for my work, or the way of working that's going to make it all happen as I want it to. I feel all the time that I'm struggling towards some better way of working, something clearer, filled with less doubt - some kind of path, or at least a direction - something that will feel a little easier.
For a moment, it works; the painting that comes out pleases me, or the combination of elements and activities leads to something that I want more of. Then I find myself saying, ok, this is the way I'm going to go, this is how it's done, this is the process that yields the results I'm looking for.
But, in fact, it isn't. For a moment, the process I chose worked to produce something that satisfied or excited me, but it wasn't because that process was my 'answer'. It was a moment when different possibilities came together in a way that was productive. By definition, that moment will never happen again, and that combination of elements will never realign in quite the same way.
So my task is not to find my correct process but to somehow learn to intuit/respond/feel/judge/perceive an appropriate action or response is every moment of my practice, of my life. And then to trust, and have confidence in that intuitive responding-in-the-dark. It's constantly shifting and varying. The skill seems to be learning how to ride a wave, how to stay upright on my board, as the water constantly shifts and changes beneath me.
This continual, unconscious hankering for something stable reminds me of one of the Buddha's most fundamental insights. He pointed out that, although all of our life's experience teaches us, again and again and again, that things are constantly changing, we still persist in believing in the possibility of stable states; happiness, health, contentment etc. For some reason, we don't seem able to cope with the reality of constant flux, despite looking at it every single day of our lives....
There is nothing stranger than success. The moment the creature arrives, it subtly alters the very work we did to become successful in the first place. Whatever measure of happiness we find in our work, once we have arrived at a goal- whether it be setting up a business, signing up to a new job, writing a book or banking a sizeable amount of money- it takes incredible skill not to be captured by the very structures for which we longed so deeply in the first place and which originally seemed so grand and radical. Human beings seem to have the virtuoso ability to turn any sudden gift of freedom or spaciousness into its exact opposite. The mantle of possibility descends upon us and instead of warming and emboldening, covers our face and our eyes. The corporate climber reaching the executive suite at last and expecting freedom and a clear field for maneuver, is astonished to find himself hemmed by politics, harangued by investors and mauled by the media. The writer finally given the advance for which she has longed for years, discovers, the moment it is banked, exactly the moment she can’t seem to get to her desk as easily. When she does find herself before the open page, she finds she suddenly has nothing to work against, or too much to work against. Something has changed. Before, she worked alone and her voice seemed singular and innocent. Now her writing is at the center of an enormous industry spreading out in ripples from the grain of her pine desk. She tries to create too much meaning in too short a space, or her style takes on a pleasing tone that robs her of her original voice. Part of her longs secretly for the time when she went unrecognized, but she cannot send back the check, the very thing that tells her she has arrived…reaching the citadel of success we long for the real, the original, the uncorrupted, but something seems to have insulated us from originality. The Greeks called this phenomenon of inversion and capture, Enantiadromia, the dynamic whereby anything followed unthinkingly, turns into its exact opposite. Midas touches his daughter and turns her to gold. His one dimensional super human power changing everything he loves into a currency that can never replace the real underlying pulse of a living breathing life…the greater the success the more we need a fierce vigilance to stay true, the greater the outward structure, the clearer and simpler the foundation must be…
Adapted from the Chapter: “Outlaw Imaginings”
In: Crossing the Unknown Sea:
Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.
Originally posted by Kath Burlinson on the Authentic Artist Facebook page
I've heard two people recently talking about people in their life suggesting that they were/are 'too much'. I love these people. They're vibrant and warm and funny and hugely creative; sensitive, powerful and inspirational. I don't think of myself as any of these things, but I suddenly heard a huge clang. It was one of those moments where you don't even realise that you've been doing or thinking something until you hear someone else express it, and then you realise simultaneously that a), there's this thing, and you've been doing it, and b), that your unconscious assumed that you were dealing with it entirely alone, but it seems you're not.
I've felt that I've been deemed to be 'too much' all my life; sometimes consciously, sometimes semi-consciously. I read the feedback from people, their reactions to me, from very early on, and it kept being the same - you don't know when to stop, you're too intense, you talk too much, you're overpowering, you're inappropriate, your life is extreme, you're not behaving properly.
After a while my extreme life got me into a heap of trouble, and when that was over I started trying to play the game as I was supposed to. There were lots of things that felt good about that; about being accepted, finally, into the game. But I spent the whole time self-monitoring, watching out for where I was about to go over the edge; be too passionate for the restrained academic context, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, be too self-revelatory for my role. That wasn't the fault of academia. It's just what it felt like trying to fit myself into it. As I attempted to beat myself into submission, I gradually forgot all about the wildness, and about the colour of my previous life. I didn't forget that I was 'too much' though, and kept trying to rein myself in.
So what has this to do with creativity, and blocks to creativity? Well, if you're constantly self-monitoring because you believe yourself to be too loud, the wrong shape, or in some other way inappropriate for your context, you're constantly checking yourself, and attempting to hold yourself back. You're trying not to make mistakes. You live in constant fear of sounding idiotic, of getting that reaction that tells you you've done it again. Your whole orientation becomes the fear of being wrong, and you shrink.
How can you hope to explore the extent and nature of your voice if the minute it comes out you're unconsciously watching and waiting and judging and fearing? How can you explore your limits and experiment with pushing over them if you're limiting yourself at every turn? It is about coming out of hiding, but this hidden sense of being 'too much' feels like a much bigger revelation, or perhaps explains something I haven't seen before about the nature of that hiding.
This painting here, is, I have to tell you, FAR too much. Yippee dee day doo dah.
So, I wrote that post over on my other blog a couple of days ago, wondering about the direction my work is taking; about why the Indian dance project, as I have been calling it, had not gone off in the direction that had seemed so promising after the Wales workshop. I've been looking for ages, and wondering, about the two strands - the Indian art, and the wild colours of the strange worlds that appear when I 'do not belabour myself with creativity'; when I just follow what's easy and calling to me, without any kind of intention.
This morning I was moving some dance images around, sticking them on a different wall. And I suddenly saw something. The glorious dancer in this image that so captivates me - that I took myself over twenty years ago on the wall of a temple in South India - is not 'my work'. She's not an aesthetic stimulus to the artistic project which I'm always hoping that one day I will get a clear sense of.
She doesn't want to be turned into a charcoal drawing. The message from the stone is not a message about the beauty of the human dancing form, or the bringing to light of the exquisite workmanship of long-forgotten sculptors. Her message is much more powerful, much less intellectual, than that.
Her message is directly to me. What do I do at workshops, at Authentic Artist and Discipline of Freedom, where I go as a 'blocked', or at the very least, somewhat lost, artist? What I do, without thought, without self-consciousness, as if finally taking in great lungfuls of air, is, I dance. And since that first freeing in September 2011, I've been dancing at home - dancing in a curiously Indian way, with bent knees and constantly-moving arms and hands and fingers - dancing till my knees groan, dancing into space. And I've not, for one moment, confused myself by thinking (as I have with singing and playing music) that 'this means that I want to perform, to share this experience as art'. Nope.
I imagine that perhaps this is where creativity truly starts. Inside, flowing down the river, learning the water. And, from this point of view, there's suddenly no discrepancy, no 'two strands' to my 'work'. The paintings that come easily, easily, with pleasure, with joy - they are the dance that goes out to the world.
David Whyte seems to have been thinking about the topic of my last post .....!
is not what it seems. …what looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavour to which we have set our minds. To hate our procrastinating tendencies is in someway to hate our relationship with time itself, to be unequal to the phenomenology of revelation and the way it works its own way in its very own sweet, gifted time, only emerging when the very qualities it represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination.
..Procrastination does not stop a project from coming to fruition -what stops us is giving up on an original idea because we have not got to the heart of the reason we are delaying, nor let the true form of our reluctance instruct us in the way ahead…
After three years of writing this blog and amassing a massive 25 followers (I don't try to promote it at all) I was recently invited to join a new bloggy social network called Storylane. I imported the blog there, and, extraordinarily, after about three days, I suddenly have 83 followers. There must be other people out there struggling with this stuff!
My friend Anicet found it this way, read back quite a way until she found the post on idiosyncrasy, and then wrote this long, thoughtful response:
Oh, What a pleasure to read on an other artist struggle and finding her way out of the "creative block" or too much freedom syndrome. I feel and realize that when I had a house to run, kids to take to music classes, tai-chi etc. and had so many chores to do, I was much more balanced with my creative energies. My work in my spontaneously set up studio, between cooking and organizing had so much better flow and my two different activities had fed each other energetically. My interaction with people were exciting, which they didn't always understand, but it all came from my joy of painting...seeing where I was going with a particular image or not seeing it yet...my joy I received from the people, their positive response to my exuberant communication with them gave me the energy and the inspiration to go back and continue daily for an hour or so my unfolding images. The rhythm between my creative expressions, of music, painting and sculpting for a good period of the time well balanced and thus made me happy as a person as a mother and as a partner to my man. I so can identify with your struggle with this imagined or self-created /subconsciously/ block,( which after a year of focus which resulted in six difficult and complex, structurally strict and deliberate images, with perfection to satisfy my desire for the aimed result) that sits on me for the past year and a half. I am creating nonstop in my mind, I am collecting data, I am planning, making sketches, but I also feel that all this is in order to avoid mixing out my colors and face all that is in me to express and finally throw myself back to that sea of delicious creative energy I so love. Our mind understands and realize and all that, but it all comes down to action. I am not waiting for inspiration, but my excuse right now worded as..: "waiting for the right energy". And compare to my previous life, my domestic life in Connecticut years past, this is a very different world, full of other activities, mostly running away from myself and my own private space. Why, I still have to figure out. But I wouldn't be surprised if it had to do with my social interactions and it's imbalances. Something equally satisfying to my old community that fed me energetically, spiritually and kept me physically fit. So many things that are responsible for the formation of a healthy artist. I didn't mean to write such a long comment, but reading your blog on this subject made me in a way feel better about it and made me conscious of this problem, kind of helping me to face the music. :) Thank you Tamsin!
Thank you Anicet! This whole thing is almost impossible to work out, but it seems to be helpful to share what it feels like, at least for me. I met an artist on my Authentic Artist workshop last week who was talking about exactly this - looking and looking and wanting to paint, but for some reason the painting not happening.
I've been thinking about this for three years. There seem to be a lot of problems with the inner critic ('that's pathetic, I can't show this to anyone'; 'who am I to make this painting?' etc), and with other forms of inner talk. Sometimes there's not even any talk, just distracting behaviour; the body always finding something else to do with itself (though I wonder if that is the body, or if it's the mind using the body to avoid working at deeper levels...).
However, I also came to realise that I was in a big period of transition, after decades of pushing myself and being insanely focussed and busy. I'm wondering this morning whether that looking, creating with the mind, maybe taking photographs instead of painting... whether that kind of activity might actually be a kind of recuperation, a settling, after so much activity for so long. Our culture tells us that we should be constantly producing, focussed, disciplined etc. But I'm increasingly coming to believe that the kind of creativity that I'm interested in comes out of space, not out of pushing or forcing.
Here's a quote from Paul Oertel, one of my teachers, which was dictated specifically for me (!)at my recent workshop:
Never belabour yourself with creativity. Follow the juice. Outsmart yourself by following the fun. Look for the stream that is open. Oh, Anicet, I also meant to say - all my paintings here are done by hand. I don't do any work directly on the computer. I always do a painting first, and then usually just slightly enhance the colours using basic free Picasa photo-editing software (you know the kind of thing, brighter/darker etc) after I photograph them. Recently Picasa added a few fancy enhancing techniques, but it all starts with a physical painting....
This is a TED talk about shame and vulnerability, which gives a rather different take on the conscious or unconscious feeling of smallness I was talking about before...... (and here is her original video from two years before on vulnerability...which has been viewed by over 6 million people)
You serve no-one by making yourself smaller out of an inappropriate consideration of someone else's scale
It's an interesting talk about how deliberately changing your physiology (for example, open out and stand confidently, rather than let yourself unconsciously curl up or slump) can change both how you feel, and how others react to you.
It works. I know it does, because I did it for over twenty years. I learnt how to project calm and confidence; in small or large groups, in lecture theatres, in keynote speeches. And it's true, in a way, that I became it. It's also true that I did this by learning to pull down a kind of blind between myself and the audience, by being super-prepared, by learning how to operate smoothly behind a facade.
It's powerful. But faking it, even though it had become second nature, fatigued me. It depleted my soul, even though on the outside everything appeared to be going so swimmingly. I still think it's good to remember the basic message of this talk - that if you're feeling threatened or small, you can adjust your physiology with very real results. But I now feel hesitant about the idea of bullying yourself in this way, and of faking it at this kind of level.
For me, the Paul Oertel quote is talking about how we talk to ourselves, about ourselves, privately, in relation to our creativity. For example, how we might compare ourselves to other artists, and belittle the validity of our own artistic contribution. I know it's in the same ball park as the TED talk, but I think the Oertel idea is about silent, inner work, rather than pumping ourselves up in order to manage a stressful social encounter. Perhaps these are just two equally valid but rather different things. Or perhaps there may be a cost to bigging yourself up through physical manoeuvres, rather than trying to understand something about the original feeling of smallness...
This links to the other discussion about self-consciousness and singing. I worked out long before I gave up my previous career that one of the reasons I was feeling so uncomfortable playing music with an audience was precisely that with music I couldn't hide behind my well-oiled blind.
Some days ago I wrote about the useful insight I gained from the experience of trying to 'normalise' my jittery voice when singing in front of (some) other people. A couple of days later, the insight developed in a slightly different direction.
It was very important to understand that messing up in public is really not the end of the world, however much it may feel like that to the ego at the time. Later on, though, I began to think about the strength of those emotions that make you feel foolish, or inadequate, or jittery, or whatever it is. There are any number of sources of advice about this kind of thing, framed as things like 'how to get over performance anxiety'. Visualise, practice, breathe...... A lot of it is very good information about how to begin to get out of your head and the negativity that your mind/ Self 1 is serving up for you once again.
However, there's another perspective on this, which sees the purpose of emotion as communication; often communication about things that you're missing because your head is so busy chattering away. This view suggests that your overall emotional/physical system may be picking up on something about the situation that isn't quite right, in terms of what is productive and nourishing for it. Why, exactly, it asks, are you forcing yourself to do something that feels so bad??
What interests me now about my own recent experience is a), why I thought what I was doing was a helpful way of approaching a situation that (sometimes) causes me anxiety, and b), why I kept on going, despite the fact that I was feeling more and more uncomfortable. It strikes me now as a very brutal way of dealing with something that I know to be extremely delicate. My teacher quoted John O'Donohue to me when I told her about this:
the soul is shy, and if you approach it too directly it will do a runner....
It looks as if my mind was reproducing cultural imperatives about it being 'good for me' to tough it out; telling me that it was useful to expose myself to a difficult situation, in order to help me to 'get used to it'. But I see now how these kinds of imperatives are simply crushing to my soul, and my creativity. I don't always feel bad singing. I can sing with friends I play music with, and in other situations that feel supportive and benign. Perhaps I was just being impatient. I would love to sing for others, to share the wonder and beauty of music-making. But you can't offer what is not yet yours.
In celebration of my difficulties yesterday and Jim's encouragement, I'm re-visiting David Whyte's idea of coming out of hiding...
To find good work, no matter what path we have chosen, means coming out of hiding. Good work means visibility. We have all had dreams in which we face large audiences without clothes, without notes, without an inkling of what to say; the faces expectant, waiting, terror in our eyes, the focus entirely on our lone naked figure. Let me tell you that the terror involved in that dream is almost entirely and utterly accurate and most of our intuitions about the dynamics of facing large audiences are horrifyingly exact. 'Just be yourself' people say, as if they have suddenly thought of something entirely original, and as if they have forgotten the terrible, wrenching initiations most religions insist on for arriving at that elusive self. To be yourself is to be no self at all but to be a frontier, the frontier between you and the audience - the large audience of a waiting crowd or the smaller more intimate audience of our immediate co-workers. Their ability to see us and know us in ways which give them a close knowledge of who we are and what we are attempting to do in the world, can seem too much, too intimate, too soon. Vulnerability and intimacy can make a very frightening shoreline. But that is a wave line we must walk in work. Work is exposure, our fancy ideas about ourselves a sandcastle built right on the edge of the incoming sea.
In ten days' time I'll be at another Authentic Artist workshop. Hoping to sing, despite it all. Hoping to play my simple chords, hoping to experience singing the world without my body going into agitation. Ha! Let's see....
Undo it all
Take down the bunting
Those cheery flags
That got so used
to waving in the breeze
Saying, look, here
An accomplished adult
A successful professional
Take it all down
Calmly, folding up the colours
into a neat little pile
Put them into a drawer
For old things
The line is bare again
The wind no longer moves
those happy little lies
There's no cleverness
Just the line
Against the backdrop
of the mountains
Image by Oliphant via Flickr
I'm mixing my visual metaphors here. These are Tibetan prayer flags which symbolise something entirely different. But this is how I saw the image of the bunting in my mind, stretched out across the sky......
I've just had what feels like a massive insight. I know, it probably won't seem any such thing to you. But I've just had my creativity group (formally known as Artist's Way group) at which I forced myself to sing. I want to be able to sing. I sing at home all the time. And yet as soon as I'm singing for an audience, my voice goes all peculiar. So this was an attempt to try to begin to normalise the situation.
It was piano instead of a keyboard or electric piano. It was loud and unwieldy and I had no idea how to get a nice chord transition without being able to control the volume. My voice was wavery as a ferret. And afterwards, it hit me. It's ok to be mediocre. That's it. That's my big insight. It's ok to be mediocre. It's ok not to impress people, not to be proficient, not to wow them, not to get a big reaction. It's ok not to be holding it all together, it's ok to be seen as nothing special.
It's ok to be seen, being imperfect.
Join the human race. And find something out about something that, one day, I might be able to do a bit better.
How did I think I was going to get better at anything without an inbetween stage???
I've spent a great deal of the last couple of years worrying and wondering about how much I'm working, whether on music or on art. In the end I learned to be philosophical about the long gaps and spaces that seemed to be occurring, and even began to see that space might be an essential part of the working.
From this perspective, it's interesting to observe my internal state and my behaviour since my involvement in the Ecstasis project. After the first day of recuperation, I've found that, though I'm not tired, I've not wanted to play the viola at all. It says something about the driven habits of my mind that perhaps I should even consider this to be notable. I still seem to believe somewhere that if I stop for a day or so that it's 'the thin end of the wedge' - the beginning of a steady slide downwards into sloth and apathy. At the very least that whatever capabilities I have will start to decline from 'lack of practice'.
Yesterday, some part of my mind said, 'right, back to the instrument before the slide begins'. I played the violin for about three minutes and the viola for the same. As soon as I stopped I could feel my hand beginning to hurt, in a way that it hadn't done, remotely, after the four hours of playing on Saturday, or in the two days that followed. And it's been sore since. It looks as if my overall body/emotion/mind system knew instinctively that it was not a good idea to play. Maybe for a week, who knows. And who cares, said the system. The minute my mind over-rode that instinctive knowing, more drastic halting measures were instigated.
The other thing that's interesting is that, in the lead up to Ecstasis, I was aware that I wasn't really doing much painting, as there was so much to explore with the music. I somehow didn't want to paint, there wasn't space for it. The minute the project was over, the painting just started itself up, no mind-stuff involved. It was like reaching out for a glass of water when you're thirsty.
Why do I worry that if I relax my vigilance, or change my routine (which actually changes all the time anyway, I just pretend that it doesn't), everything will stop? Why do I seem to believe that somehow my natural state is sloth and inactivity, and that I have to keep geeing myself up with my mind to make anything happen? When in fact all the actual evidence suggests that if I stop all this trying and intending and disciplining, 'creativity' seems to happen like breathing, like a river winding down to the sea. It has its rhythms; its tides and its storms, its patches of calm, its cool breezes. When I get out of the way, it seems to be the movement of life itself.
I'm a bit non-plussed after my first public arts performance. It's very easy to see what I learnt from doing it; what I would do differently, and what I want to do in the future to develop what I offered. I'm currently finding it a little harder to focus on what was achieved (which was certainly considerable as a group, and not too bad for me personally either!).
I played the viola on and off for four hours - I learnt a lot from that about how I might try to develop a kind of pattern-bank for improvising. I got quite bored of what I was able to come up with..
I also missed a really great opportunity to practice interacting with an audience (which I'm pretty phobic about, and hoping to work on in the next Authentic Artist workshop...). Originally it was planned that I'd be in a dark, echoey corridor, out of sight. For various reasons this didn't happen, and I ended up in the larger, more open space with the others. At the last minute we got a message not to talk to anyone if they talked to us, and somehow in my mind this combined with the early plan that I'd be out of sight to mean that I decided not to make eye contact with people, but to focus on the sound I was making which was supposed to be adding to their overall experience. I don't know if that was wrong or right, but afterwards I decided it was wrong, and that I could have been looking, at least from time to time, even if I wasn't going to talk.
But what a lot we achieved after only three days working together. There was no time to rehearse - we all just went in and did our thing for four hours. And it worked, as far as I can tell.
I've referred quite a lot in my musings here to Barry Green's idea of self 1 and self 2, in his book The Inner Game of Music. I seem to keep coming back to it, whatever different perspectives on creativity, and blocks to creativity, I find. I've decided that I'm going to read the book again, and perhaps post key ideas from it here as I go along.
Whether you are playing tennis, engaged in business, or making music, each activity has its own challenges and ways to overcome them. It is, if you like, a game. This game, the 'outer game', is the one we all know we are playing. You play it in the 'outside' world, against 'outside' opponents. The obstacles are your opponent's backhand, the cut-throat competition or the intricate fingering. Your goal is to win the point, or land the contract or play the difficult passage. And there are many books on the market designed to teach you how to play it better. The fundamental insight of Tim Gallwey's approach is that you are also playing a second, or 'inner', game all the time you are playing the 'outer' game. This second game is subtler, less easily noticed and more quickly forgotten. It is played out in the arena of your mind. The obstacles are mental obstacles, such as lapses of concentration, nervousness and self-doubt. Your goal is to express your potential to the fullest. And very few books talk about it. These two games, the inner and the outer, are closely interrelated - and each one has considerable impact on the other. It simply isn't possible to engage in any human activity without playing both games. The problem arises when we are playing both games but think we're only playing the outer game. These are the times when, as Tim puts it, 'the game ends up playing the person', rather than the other way round (p21-22).
So, this is a general introduction to the overall idea of The Inner Game, which was developed by Tim Gallwey in relation to learning to play tennis. I read that book decades ago, but one image from it has stayed in my mind. This is Gallwey's story about a guy practising his tennis serve into an armchair placed on the other side of the net. He's practising and practising, trying and trying, but however hard he tries to focus, the ball just will not land in the centre of the chair. In the end he gets completely pissed off with the whole thing and decides to give up. Sod this, he says to himself, as he does one last serve and turns to walk away. When he looks back, he sees that the ball has landed perfectly in the middle of the chair.
What I took away from this, all those years ago, was the idea that somehow the mind interferes with what we're trying to do. It doesn't seem logical, as we're urged to 'concentrate', and 'pay attention', and 'focus' on the thing we're trying to achieve. But actually, it seems that the harder we try, the more we interfere with what it is we're actually attempting to do.
Self-knowledge is not fully possible for human beings. We do not
reside in a body, a mind or a world where it is achievable or from the point of
being interesting, even desirable. Half of what lies in the heart and mind is
potentiality, resides in the darkness of the unspoken and unarticulated and has
not yet come into being: this hidden unspoken half will supplant and subvert
any present understandings we have about ourselves. Human beings are a frontier
between what is known and what is not known. The act of turning any part of the
unknown into the known is simply an invitation for an equal measure of the
unknown to flow in and reestablish that frontier: to reassert the far horizon
of an individual life; to make us what we are – that is - a moving edge between
what we know about ourselves and what we are about to become. What we are
actually about to become, or are afraid of becoming, always trumps and rules
over what we think we are already.
The hope that a human being can achieve complete honesty and self-knowledge
with regard to themselves is a fiction and a chimera, the jargon and goals of a
corporate educational system brought to bear on the depths of an identity where
the writ of organizing language does not run. Self-knowledge includes the
understanding that the self we know is about to disappear. What we can
understand is the way we occupy this frontier between the known and the
unknown, the way we hold the conversation of life, the figure we cut, but a
detailed audit of the self is not possible and diminishes us in the attempt to
establish it; we are made on a grander scale, half afraid of ourselves, half in
love with immensities beyond any name we can give…
from Readers' Circle Essay, "Forgiveness", 2011
I love the idea here that as soon as you feel you know something about yourself, the next unknown is already moving in to take the place of the one you think you've removed. Perhaps, then, this means that it's the unknown which is always in some way the point (as opposed to 'self-knowledge' being some kind of goal).
This unknown must surely be the source of creativity. Or at least the source of what I call creativity, which is not something predictable or contained. If your work does not surprise you, it seems to me, then perhaps what you're looking at is simply the perfection of a technique or a skill.
Discipline of Freedom work seems to me to be about creating practices and opportunities which force you into that unknown. This work makes you step out onto a secret plateau within yourself; it helps you to step, and to wait, and to breathe, while you're waiting to see what happens. Without this kind of practice, you can live forever without knowing how it feels to be suddenly over your edge; falling through space, and, to your utter amazement, finding yourself in waiting hands that you had no idea, at all, were there.
The word 'faith' has always been a red rag to me. It inflames some sense of outrage against what I personally believe to be the massive delusion of those forms of religious dogma which suggest that you are not allowed to doubt the existence of an external, punishment-dealing creator; and which tell you that you must simply 'have faith' that he (it is almost always a he) is up there, separate from you, and judging you, whether or not this idea makes any sense to you (apologies to those of you whose belief I have just caricatured). Faith in this sense has always made me want to scream.
But I see now that there's a different interpretation of faith. When I walk out alone into the space of an Authentic Artist or Discipline of Freedom workshop floor, I'm putting my trust into something that's outside of me; in a group of people and a process that I cannot in any way predict, though I always have the option of control. And somehow, in this process, I'm moved into that unknown. Without fear, and without danger. My creative work is always permanently affected by whatever happens.