Relaxing into Open Space
Do you ever feel uninspired or distracted by too many ideas, unsure what to express creatively? Or perhaps you are afraid to express any creative ideas at all? Maybe your life is bogged down with obligations, family, work, and other things. Even if you have a few moments to yourself, you are thinking about those issues so nothing creative or new seems possible. All of us engage in an internal running commentary, colored by our assumptions, biases, and critiques about ourselves and everything we experience, based on our past.
So, in order to create something new, there first must be a gap in the commentary. You may start with a physical place for your creation: a blank page, stage, or canvas. Yet inspiration arises with an opening in our thinking, naturally occurring gaps in our assumed “reality,” like the one John Cage created for his audience in the premiere of 4’33”. It comes in the open space where anything is possible!
Perhaps the most radical and necessary thing we can do in our achievement-oriented culture is to “not do,” to just be. In “not doing,” you are present for whatever is happening now. With practice, you learn to trust that creative inspiration naturally arises from experience.
Being on the Dot
There is no guarantee that repetitive activity cultivates mindfulness. It depends on where you place your attention. You can either be mindful or mindless. Being mindful means you are present with an activity with an attentive and inquisitive mind. The activity becomes the object of your meditation. Just as with sitting practice, when the mind strays, you gently bring it back to your present activity. You attend to the physical sensations of what you are doing, synchronizing mind and body.
In a mindless state, your attention wanders from what you are doing. You daydream, watch TV, talk to others, or simply space out. While your body is active, the mind is elsewhere. You are not fully present. Mindful engagement in an activity strengthens your ability to be present, not only with the current activity, but also in other parts of your life.
When we are in sync, we can direct our minds to contemplate a specific intention with each repetition. Intentional creating imbues the creation with the energy of that intention. For example, those who knit prayer shawls offer prayers for the recipient with each stitch. Tibetan monks create mandalas with tiny grains of colored sand, while visualizing the enlightened aspects of the deities. Creating becomes a sacred ritual.
The repetitive activity calls forth our embodied wisdom by aligning the head, heart, and hand in the present. You can then direct your attention, for example, to staying present with the activity, contemplating a goal, sending loving kindness to someone, or generating a positive quality, like compassion, equanimity, or devotion. The activity keeps you grounded in awareness, returning to your intention with each repetition.
Opening the Sense Gates
While perceptions are limitless, the capabilities of our sense organs are not. For example, we can’t hear the pitch range that a dog can hear or smell as acutely as one. As we age, we may lose our hearing or sense of smell. So, what we perceive is always a limited slice of reality. We adapt, often filling in the gaps with our assumptions, like an amputee might experience a phantom limb. We try to “make sense” of the world through our perceptions, which are colored by our thoughts, creating our version of reality—a relative truth.
The brain acts as a gatekeeper to our sensory experience. It filters the input from our sense organs further, depending on where we place our conscious attention. How often have you driven a familiar route and not been aware of any of it, lost in thought about something else? When we are distracted by our thoughts, we miss vital information from our senses, like the exit ramp you missed while thinking about what you will say when you get to your friend’s house. It’s important to realize we are always selectively relating to the world. What we presume is reality is only a small slice of the truth.
Our sense perceptions provide valuable feedback as we create. Visual artists improve their ability to draw by learning to see the subtleties of line, shape, color, and texture. Likewise, a musician cultivates a discerning ear for sounds. Increasing your sensory awareness is essential for art mastery, whatever the medium. It might even make us better drivers!
Appreciating Everyday Life
Our everyday world is sending us messages all the time—signs we receive with greater clarity if we are attentive to our senses, remaining open and inquisitive about what we perceive. You see the spaciousness of the sky, feel the firmness of the earth beneath your feet, rain is wet, and the midday sun is bright. Sirens shriek and dust settles. With a contemplative mind, everyday experience offers an endless supply of creative inspiration. The world shares its wisdom with us as we perceive it. As artists, we are channels for its expression. Our ability to do this is a precious gift, one we offer to others so they might find greater appreciation of the world and its wisdom, too.
Perceiving Things as They Are
As children, initially, the whole world was unfiltered and fresh. Yet, from the moment we understood the word “juice” would get us a cool drink of something sweet, we have substituted concepts for experience. Over time, our opinions about things become increasingly based on past experience and concepts rather than actual observation. This becomes a bubble of self-confirming data that skews our view of ourselves and the world around us. We only see what we’re expecting to see. This can make clear communication difficult in our art and life.
Still, these mental shortcuts are useful, which is why we use them. Our attention is only placed on the information in our environment that we believe directly impacts us.
It’s a matter of where we place our attention. We would be in constant overload without this filtering system.
It’s important to realize we never have the full picture. We are always filtering our experience. People and things exist independent of us. Stepping out of our myopic habitual patterns, we discover they have their own messages independent of us. It is possible for us to see beyond our projections. Taking time to perceive first provides more information for our creative process.
Though creating and reacting use the same letters, creating starts with “c,” as in seeing first. We take a fresh look, unconstrained by past experience. Insight and inspiration arise by being open to this moment. We bring something new into existence in response. This is creating. The expression will be unique, because now and here are never the same.
Reacting is using past experience to dictate how to respond in the present. The “c” is buried in the middle of the process; we respond with habitual patterns and then see the result.
prefer the word “creating” rather than “creativity,” because it is a verb, indicating activity, rather than something someone has as a talent or learned trait. Creating is as simple as placing a flower in a vase or as complex as making a movie. If we remain open to our experience, we all have the ability to create. We create our lives with the actions we take. We create community with the people we choose as friends and how we relate to family. We might create our home, events, or even a business. Not all creating is art and not all creators are artists.
Each choice and action we take impacts what we create. Whether the act is spontaneous, intuitive, or deliberate, creating brings inspiration into form. If you think something, it’s simply an idea. Once it is expressed, it becomes something more tangible, something to relate to. For it to become a creation, action is required. You are giving birth to an outcome, whether it is art or a life.
Creating alters reality, step by step, to manifest your vision. Throughout the process, now and here shift, requiring you to stay present and up to date in your awareness. You channel the energy through your choices and commitment to bring your creation into reality.
Throughout the creative process, you may experience many different states of mind and emotions. You might be in the flow one minute and in confusion and doubt the next. When you are committed to your vision and awake to reality, everything else is workable. Your emotional state need not disrupt the creative process.
There are four actions you can use to cut self-critical chatter as it arises and return to here and now with fresh insight. In the Buddhist tradition, these skillful actions are called pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying.
- Pacify: To bring order, calm, or settle
- Enrich: To enhance, adorn, increase some desirable quality
- Magnetize: To draw in or seduce
- Destroy: To eliminate, erase, or eradicate
Each creative expression alters space by touching it with words, gestures, forms, or sounds, creating an experience. In taking action, you see the outcome of your efforts. You learn more about yourself and the world as a result. You can extend that learning into other parts of your life as you train your mind to be present and aware. The four actions, in particular, are useful for working with obstacles wherever they arise.