Monday, 25 June 2012

the daily practice 2

Someone asked me a while ago what I had got from Paul Oertel's workshop that was persisting into the present. I remember saying that one of the most influential things was a clearer sense of how I constantly sabotaged the products of my creative activity. At this stage, I was thinking about negating what came out in talk with others; reducing everything, demeaning it apologetically.

More recently, I've seen how there's also a whole other area of undermining which is to do with behaviour. I've seen it vaguely before, faffing around on the computer etc., dithering here and there. But last week I began to see that I was actually starting to do this with my daily practice. I was still doing it every day, but it was getting later and later, and sometimes having to be done in a slightly rushed state of mind, because of other things things I had to do. After the intensity of the workshop, working seemed to flow so easily, in so many directions. Nothing has changed in my conditions. But what happens, I guess, is that old patterns begin to try to reassert themselves. 

A related pattern I noticed here was that I was suddenly seeing lots of interesting ideas that I could write about (beyond this blog). And then I saw how that was another avoidance tactic. Writing is part of what I do, but at the moment it has to be contained in this direct writing about my own experience. I decided that  wanting to write about huge, fascinating topics was, at least in part, a manifestation of my ego using my intellect to try to distract me from moving into the unknown. Writing is something I've done a lot of. I like it. I know how to research stuff. I could do it reasonably well. But that's the point. It's something I know, and, furthermore, it's something that's very effective at distancing from the felt, from the embodied, and from other kinds of doing which are not intellectual and which I do not do easily, or which I've forgotten how to do easily: a.k.a. movement, music and painting. 

That was helpful, though - to see that a lot of what stops and blocks and holds back and distracts may simply be a fear of moving into unknown territory. Named as that, the territory immediately seems more attainable.

The daily practice seems to contain, and to surface, just about everything that could possibly be relevant to me right now. Wonderfully, as well, it seems to have freed me from constantly fretting about what comes out; how the music is, or what the painting looks like.  Before, if I didn't like what came out, if it didn't seem to be progressing things (frustrating, as I had no idea what the direction was, or what the goal was, or what progression towards it would look like), I would feel critical and dissatisfied. I would scour every product for signs of hope, for indicators of direction. I would long for happy immersion, for playing and doing, or at least, for longer periods of happy immersion, that were not taking place in a context of nameless expectation. But any success at such immersion was continually being hacked away at.

It probably helps that the minute I started the practice (the first one at home, after the workshop), and stopped thinking about the products, everything came together in a big star-filled mass and I suddenly saw what I wanted my work to be. Kind of helps to have a sense of it. I wouldn't say it's  a sense of direction - I still don't know 'where it's going', or really anything about its nature. But I have identified a field. A field that was trying to be recognised before, but which my mind kept rejecting. So now, at the allotted time, I walk into the field, and I start to play. I have to play for a whole hour. And then after an hour, I have to stop, even if I could go on. Often, there isn't a lot 'to show'. Particularly if it's been music (I alternate music-based days with paint-based days). And it doesn't matter. Because the field is there. And I'm in it.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

burning and firewalling

Having written in my previous post about the creative force of constraints, it strikes me that it's also possible for a dynamic system to be overly-constrained.

Excessive constraints can come from what could loosely be described as 'outside' the system (remembering that such systems have extremely permeable boundaries; that things are constantly moving in and out and through them; and that even their 'insides' are partly constructed from bits of other, larger systems that are technically 'outside' of them).

Examples of external over-constraints could be work-related demands (sorry to keep making this more complicated, but 'work-related' demands are subtle - the apparently external pressures of work may be, in many types of work, subtly internalised as well...), financial pressures, family obligations etc etc. Excessive constraints might also be loosely 'internal', in the sense that they've become part of the structure of the system through time. Examples of this might be compensatory or protective responses to trauma; cognitive feedback loops that are negative and critical; or a belief such as that other people must always be put first, even if this comes at a cost to the system itself (which, of course, is an aspect that distinguishes human dynamic systems from other kinds of biological systems, as I said before, - consciousness, damn it...).

Highly constrained systems can be very 'productive'; as the interactions and feedback loops continue and feed into/off each other, more and more emergence pops out - in terms of creative products, perhaps more and more ideas, or pages of writing, or paintings, or whatever. But if the constraints are too fixed, too inflexible, or perhaps too many (could this also be if consciousness/will is driving the process at the expense of other aspects of the system?) the emergence of the consciousness-approved 'creative products' may start to be accompanied by other kinds of emergence, aimed at relieving the system of the effects of the too-forceful constraints. Perhaps irritation might emerge, for example, or anger, or chronic physical problems. And if these attempts to balance the system are ignored, it seems that the system can begin to burn itself up. I don't think biological systems with more limited, or no, consciousness, could do this. Slime moulds, ant hills etc, are constantly adapting and re-balancing erosions or threats, moving away in a different direction, repairing any breaching ....

As someone who has, until recently, been massively over-constrained both externally and internally, I have learnt the importance of firewalling. I first read about this idea in relation to dynamic systems in an article in the New Scientist a few years ago about the economic crash. The writer was pointing out that increased connectivity seems to be seen, culturally, as mainly 'a good thing'. It's a key idea in many interpretations of theories such as complexity and actor network theory, and also underpins commentaries on the social effects of social networking sites such as facebook. However, the writer here was pointing out that increased connectivity of what were once multiple economic systems could be disastrous. He was arguing that  if things become too connected, they lose the resilience they had when the interactions were more localised and distributed. In this situation, if there's a crisis in one part of the system, the whole thing goes down, whereas before, when the interactions were confined to more localised sites, the system could repair or change direction without too much effect on it overall. His suggestion was that financial systems needed to be 'firewalled' - that blocks should be deliberately put into such systems to interrupt the connectivity; to slow it down, or stop interactions completely in certain areas.

As a previously overly-constrained system, I have had to learn the importance of firewalling my multiple interactions, in order to slow down the creative emergence. This might seem an odd thing to say in a blog that has spent the last couple of years bemoaning its author's creative stuckness. But that's because, having burnt myself up, I had been thrown into a period of enforced interaction reduction. Since the workshop in Wales, I've begun to experience the loveliness of bubbling creative emergence again, which seems to currently be flowing with relative ease within the constraints of my new daily practice.

I'm still, however, coming to terms with the upending of my previous assumptions about creative work. The 10,000 hours and all that. You do need to do the hours to improve technique, as we probably all agree. But this other thing I've been exploring - that thing that is not technique, but soul, artistry, subtlety, connection, the open channel - for an over-constrainer like myself, that in fact seems to need the opposite of the 10,000 hours.

I keep reading things about the necessity of 'keeping the fire going' under one's creativity. I think I know what this means, in the sense of keeping the connection to that need to create; to the intention, the desire, the necessity, and to the practice of it. The need to contact it every day, to not become overwhelmed with the distractions of earning a living, and the multiple other kinds of distraction.  I also read often about passion. What I don't seem to ever read about is the opposite - the possibility that too much passion and fire, too many interactions in too small a space, can lead to burning.

If you're already burning, it seems to me, you don't need to increase your hours, increase your pressure on yourself, however satisfying it may appear to be, in the short term, in terms of your productivity. Perhaps what you actually need is to make SPACE, to make room for oxygen to flow around things. To firewall the HOT, overly-constrained interactions that are leading to burning emergence (and actually burning you up) so that the natural bubbling of your creativity can instead become a sustainable spring, warm and nourishing, rather than scalding...

Akasha, or space, is understood to make room for things and to be the receptacle for all substances. It accommodates selves, matter, the conditions or media of motion and rest, and time. It is the base or support to accommodate all things... It's nature is formless and its extension infinite...

Shivkumar, M. (1984:38)

Davide's image from Mexico

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


when will I settle
into this body
this being?
I know I can be here
with less of me
gumming up my experience
I could hum
vibrate, with empty fullness
emptier than now
fuller than now

Monday, 11 June 2012

the daily practice

A central idea in Paul Oertel's Discipline of Freedom workshop was the idea of the daily practice. I first learnt about this from Kath Burlinson, but I wasn't really able to understand it very well at the stage that she introduced me to it. Once again, I want to stress that anything I write about this is my own creation; I have no idea at all if my personal use of the idea bears any relation to anyone else's.

A daily practice can be five minutes, or five hours. What's important about it is that it happens every day, in the same way that cleaning your teeth happens, or eating happens. There's no discussion about it (though some people apparently work a banking system, where they move the practice around their week in chunks, according to how busy they are).

The practice can have the same structure every single day, or it can have a varied structure, or both. Its content reflects the way that Paul and Kath work in their workshops, in the sense that it's multi-modal. A person's main area of artistry may focus mainly on one thing (ie. painting, acting, storytelling etc), but their practice can weave in and out of many different media. It might start with a piece of text, which could be read, or performed, or responded to with paint or music or writing or the body. It might then move into a musical section, which again, could be followed or responded to any number of different ways. Or it might start with a physical response to music, followed by some kind of numerical framing (I'm going to write two lines, then dance again, then write two more lines...).

The overall idea seems to be to move you out of your analytical head (so, here I am starting my painting/writing, how will I begin, do I like what I did yesterday? I wonder if I should work on  my scales before I go back to the piece....). and into your feeling body.

After some time of working with bodily or vocal responses to text or music, my own experience, both in workshops and in my practice, is that the mind seems to clear, to quieten, to recede. When I eventually pick up my violin, or start to paint, what comes out is quite different to what would come out if I walked into the room and started the play or paint 'cold'.

This makes me think of Martha Graham's idea  about 'the channel':

There is a vitality,
a life force,
an energy,
a quickening 
that is translated through you into action
and because there is only one you in all of time,
this expression is unique.

And if you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.
The world will not have it.

The way that my work is changing since experiencing the workshop, and more recently since doing a daily practice, makes it a little clearer to me that I have indeed been blocking something. My mind - my wanting and trying and hoping and trying to see - has been chomping up what has been emerging into my channel almost as soon as it manages to get out there, even though it knows well that it's doing this, and is at the same time trying to stop itself.

The 'container' of the daily practice is starting to sabotage this endless mind-created destruction. Why should this be? I'm finding it irresistible to think about this in terms of complexity theory... ;-)

Complexity theory is not, as commonly understood, a theory (...a bunch of theories, and interpretations of theories, actually...) which says 'it's all so complex, look how everything is joined up to everything else'. It's actually a theory about entities; about open, dynamic systems, which, like the idea of ecology in relation to the planet, exist as 'things' at the same time as being both open and completely embedded in lots of other 'things', both smaller and larger than themselves.

For example, a group of people who meet regularly to achieve a particular end, who have norms and patterns and a sense of identity, might be thought of as an open dynamic system. The system is composed of smaller systems (the individual people themselves) and is also part of much larger systems (perhaps various communities they're part of, or cultural norms which might govern behaviour, or belief systems). Each individual person is themselves linked into lots of other dynamic systems which are nothing to do with the group, and all of these different systems that they're linked to are also contained within the much larger dynamic of community, culture and language.

Biological versions of dynamic systems (ant colony, beehive, ecosystems, the planet...) are programmed for survival, and to this end are constantly processing things in and out of themselves, and reading signals all around which result in changes aimed at maximising this survival.  Any adaptive survival strategies that appear however, don't come from a central heart/brain/queen bee - the whole thing is managed in a distributed way, rather than being directed by anything in the centre. Changes that benefit the system emerge  in a way that can't be tracked back in a step-by-step way to any particular cause or action, often quite suddenly. So what has this to do with the daily practice?

Key conditions for emergence are: 1) the system is open to and constantly interacting with its environment, 2) it's joined up to multiple other systems by innumerable feedback loops, which are constantly modifying each other in unpredictable ways, 3) these multiple connected interactions have been going on through time - they have a history, 4) the interactions are taking place within a set of constraints (ie. the system has a boundary, albeit permeable).

A human being is a dynamic system, a biological entity that meets all the above criteria. It's also more complicated than many other dynamic systems in nature because it has consciousness; it can see and analyse and deliberately affect things such as its connections, or aspects of its dynamics. This also has limits - the human mind can try to affect things only to find itself sabotaged again and again by aspects of itself which are invisible to consciousness; unseen physical and emotional forces.

As an artist who had no daily practice, I was doing my best to 'get out of my own way'; to notice evidence of self-sabotage, to be disciplined in my work etc etc. One of the really difficult paradoxes of doing creative work seems to be precisely that you're trying to get out of the things that have constrained you for so long (the history of your discipline, your training, the limitations and assumptions of prevalent artistic culture etc). But many people find that facing a blank page every day is far, far harder than someone saying, 'here's your blank page, here's your essay title, you have until this time next week to finish'.  We're desperate to go beyond all of the constraints we've been brought up on, and but at the same time, we quite quickly come to learn that trying to create in a vast open space is extremely difficult.

I'm wondering if that's why up to now this has been so difficult for me. I've finally, more or less, achieved the space and freedom that I've been aching for all my life. And since I've been in it, I've been as lost as an abandoned puppy.

The daily practice provides me with a very clear set of self-chosen constraints. I work for one hour, and one hour only. Whether I feel like it or not (I always do, so far), whether I have an idea or not, whether I know where I'm going or not. I don't work 'on painting' or 'practice my violin'. I work on a lot of things, different every day, as they emerge and lead into each other. It doesn't feel difficult. It feels like a release.

Within a couple of days, something quite different started appearing in my work. Nothing that I felt pleased to show people (no work on flickr at the moment, as I no longer need it to try to see where I've been and what the hell I think I'm doing). Nothing radical, in terms of any onlooker. But something which integrated a number of things which are a large part of my interest history; most particularly, a lifelong interest in Indian Art and philosophy (which I studied for my first degree). Where had all that GONE? It had tried to come out, quite recently, and my mind had squashed it and called it strange (actually, not 'strange', but 'bonkers', until a friend suggested to me that sabotaging the results of my creativity in that way was perhaps unhelpful....). Within a week of starting my practice, I was weaving in and out of something completely new. Something that was joined up, somehow. Something which felt like it knew itself, had been waiting in the wings. Something that brought many disparate things together...

Which reminds me of a quote I read recently about making images in the Indian tradition, which seems to support beautifully the Discipline of Freedom way of working with multiple modalities:

The knowledge of iconography depends upon the correct understanding of the rules of both sculpture and painting; a true mastery in the latter is unattainable without a knowledge of the art of dancing, which is again supplementary to one's full acquaintance with the science of music.

Shukla, II, 1958:26

I have no idea what's going on with my work at the moment really, but it feels like a relief, instead of a strain. And I've remembered a kind of creativity that I had more or less forgotten, a creativity that arises, easily and consistently, like a gently bubbling spring - as opposed to my recent years of wanting, and trying, and hoping.

Without the constraint of the daily practice, there wasn't much emergence. Everything was too open, too wide, and I was blocking off essential parts of my historical, emotional and physical system with my mind.

But with a daily practice providing the constraints which a dynamic system needs, in order to contain the multiple reactions which are going on within it and passing through it, suddenly there's emergence.

Emergence is creativity, and it largely bypasses the mind.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

the bowl

Imagine the time the particle you are
returns where it came from!

The family darling comes home.Wine,
without being contained in cups,
is handed round.

A red glint appears in a granite outcrop,
and suddenly the whole cliff turns to ruby.

At dawn I walked along with a monk
on his way to the monastery.
'We do the same work'
I told him. 'We suffer the same'.

He gave me a bowl.
And I saw:
the soul has this shape.
you that teach us and actual sunlight,
help me now,
being in the middle of being partly myself,
and partly outside.

Jelaluddin Rumi

Saturday, 2 June 2012

welsh cottage

In this ancient Welsh cottage
Flagstones, dark walls...

This is the womb space
The hollow tree

Where I find myself
Dark and complicated

Rich with the humus
Of ages

The unmet pains 
Of the generations

Against deep red walls
On the polished wooden floor

As the light filters through
The small windows

Wraps itself around me


working and sharing

I become aware of more and more paradoxes. Developing your unique expression, mining your idiosyncratic responses; so that you can reach out beyond the idiosyncratic, to a much wider, more connected world. Having to get away from the impulse to please others or receive approval, trying to find a place within yourself where you can stand; so that you can get beyond yourself. Working to your own agenda, trying to find your own source; but at the same time not wanting to leave what comes out in the garage - wanting to share what you find.

And all the time an unseen tussle between the shrieking of the ego, and what I think of as the crying of the soul.  Ego, running its out-of-control patterns of caution, protection and defence, trying to protect you from making a fool of yourself, making sure you stay small and insecure. Something larger, more connected, continuing its insistence, however much ego hacks away at its beauty and strength.

I've realised why I write this blog. I feel free here. Free, but not locked away, in the way that one is in more personal journal writing, for example. Here I can try to look at the creative process I'm involved in with at least some sense of objectivity. Even if that objectivity is a complete illusion, the idea that even one other person might want to share in thinking about these things is enough to take me just slightly out of my own sticky, self-referential web. And I like that feeling. 


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