I rush for where
the thistles and moss
will absorb the sounds
of my racing mind
and where the thudding
of my heart
can run alongside
those of the others
escaping their enemies,
running toward survival,
until we are one organism,
moving madly, at first,
and then, as though
in spontaneous awareness
of an internal need,
we pause, and slow,
and it’s the greatest
silence we have ever known,
sonorous and pure,
and we can hear
the ladybug flap her wings,
though she decides to stay,
and the grass is heaving
its gratitude for the earth
sustaining it from below.
The birds slice through sky
to nestle in the treetops,
their every movement
conducing a forest symphony
for our delighted ears.
Our own heartbeats
are making sweet music,
calm, rhythmic now,
because we, too, have stayed,
one for the other,
under the watchful moon
and the playful sun.
– Tammy Takahashi
You know them when you see them: people who radiate joy, don’t sweat the small stuff, naturally attract people to them and who seem to be in a pretty constant state of peace.
What do these people have in common? Well, they’ve all worked hard to tame the beast within and turn their minds into their greatest allies. For the rest of us, life might look a little bit like this: worrying, regretting past actions, stressing out about potential future events, spinning out of control, retreating to worlds of fantasy and distraction … sound familiar?
You don’t want to feel like this. You might be thinking about starting meditation and mindfulness practices, to become more Zen, but don’t know how where to start. As you work up to your Namaste, then, it can be helpful to try a few practical things aimed at familiarizing yourself with the lifelong companion that is your mind, which you definitely want on your team!
1: Recognize that you are not your mind.
Here’s a telltale sign: you can actually observe your thoughts and feelings as they come up, which means you are not inextricably bound with them. This awareness is truly a revolution, and the first step toward empowering yourself to begin the work of calming the mind down and getting it on your side.
“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.” – C.G. Jung
2: Become a witness of your mind.
Your mind is capable of extraordinary things once you learn to take the reins. One of the main purposes of meditation is to connect to the present moment by accessing your inner witness. Rest quietly and become aware of your body and immediate surroundings. Observe thoughts as they arise and slip away; they will do this over and over. As you distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings, you’ll start to wonder you we attach so deeply to ephemera that come and go like clouds in the sky.
“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” – attributed to Buddha
3: Be careful what you put into your mind.
In some ways, the mind is very simple: it builds on what you feed it. If you funnel negativity into it, it will soon be hard not to feel negative, because the mind – which is not your enemy, just doing its job – adjusts and happily works with what it’s given. This is known in neuroscience as “plasticity” : our brains work with new stimuli no matter how old we are. Letting the good stuff in will actually, if slowly, make it easier for you to feel positive over time.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” – Mahatma Gandhi
4: Explore your mind like it’s a foreign country
The best kind of travel is all about being curious, having no expectations, and being ready to be dazzled, even enlightened by what we find. Take the time to be in stillness with your mind and contemplate the thoughts and feelings you find there; they have a lot to teach you about your coping patterns and how you have come to view the world over time. In short: discover yourself!
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” – Dalai Lama
5: Distinguish between knowledge and wisdom
Knowledge involves learning facts and developing the intellect. You might come to realize that accumulating knowledge does not make you feel any happier. Wisdom, on the other hand, involves learning from our life’s experiences about what is meaningful so we can live our best possible lives with heart. Learning things is great, but acquiring wisdom is invaluable.
‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.’ – Lord Alfred Tennyson
6: Embrace compassion, the gateway to happiness
As we focus more on wisdom than gathering information, we come to understand whey we are really here: to benefit others and know deep within that we don’t want anyone to suffer, as we ourselves don’t want to suffer. Cultivating empathy compassion through meditation and contemplation is one of the best things we can do by encouraging the mind to serve our purpose of being agents of good in a world that badly needs it.
“More smiling, less worrying. More compassion, less judgment. More blessed, less stressed. More love, less hate.” – Roy T. Bennett
7: Seek truths that thought cannot produce
The rational mind computes, analyzes, discriminates and assesses very well, but left to its own devices, it does not naturally guide you toward greater consciousness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there! The mind just need some coaxing. Attempt to remember your dreams. Comb your mind for things people have said to you in the past that struck you as wise. Don’t dismiss insights; write them down. Embrace synchronicities that seem to fall on your lap. Recognize wisdom and deeper truth for what it is and let it support your conscious life.
“To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.” – Jiddu Krishmanurti
8: Listen to your heart and your gut and let them win
Contrary to conventional belief, it’s been shown that reason and emotions are not two passing trains in the night. Our emotions actually guide our rational and cognitive functioning to a large extent, and our “gut” area has come be known as our second brain. Don’t rationalize your gut instincts away: take the time to listen to the messages you receive from your body and inner wisdom.
“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” – Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being
9: Tend to your mind like a garden
Before we start on the garden, it looks like a mess of jumbled weeds and dried clumps of earth. Who wants to go there? But with effort, you end up with a gorgeous kingdom of your creation, full of beauty, nutrients and wonder. So it is with the mind – with a little pruning, love and care, persistently attended to every day, it can grow into a gorgeous and fruitful splendor.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch
10: Develop equanimity
Equanimity means regarding the things you experience without judgment. Stop liking things so much that you can’t live without them, and stop focusing energy on despising things, which only strengthens their iron grip on you. Practice observing your reactions to things, and notice how naming and being aware of these reactions helps make them less intense over time.
“It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.” – Osho
11: Allow wonder in
Little kids are so full of awe at everything they encounter – we can be that way again too! The world is really a playground, and we are infinitely lucky to be in it. Life isn’t always going to be easy, but you can access that innocent, childlike wonder anytime by opening eye and heart to the magic all around us. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it!
“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” – Walt Streightiff
12: Slow down and be silent
We’ve all experienced the overwhelm that comes with trying to be productive all the time. It’s time to stop burning yourself out. Carve time in the day to spend time with loved ones, enjoy the rewards of your labor and reflect on your life. There’s a reason we’re afraid of silence; here we are forced to confront ourselves, and it’s not always pretty. But in coming face to face with our demons, you can overcome them and ease through to peace and harmony.
“Silence is the language of Om. We need silence to be able to reach our Self. Both internal and external silence is very important to feel the presence of that supreme Love.” – Amit Ray
13: Know that you don’t have to be defined by your stories.
Humans have an amazing capacity for storytelling and to create identities based on the stories we tell. It’s key to keep in mind that in choosing which stories you tell and whih memories you latch onto, you are reinforcing certain aspects of your identity, for better or worse. Stories are fluid and can always be rewritten.
“A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, “Why is there so much suffering?”
Suzuki Roshi replied, “No reason.” – Shunryu Suzuki
14: Replace “what ifs” for “thank you’s”
One of the “best” ways we waste time is to pine over mistakes and wonder, what if we’d done things differently? Well, we didn’t! The life we are living now is a product of the decisions we’ve made, and the best antidote to regret is gratitude. Express thanks for all the million ways in which your life is awesome and worth celebrating, and more of that is bound to come
“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” – Maya Angelou
15: Take a walk in nature, be wild and write a poem about it
You don’t have to literally write a poem, but tapping into your creativity is also tapping into your nature. Nature and creation go hand in hand. Humans are among nature’s most awe-inspiring creations, and so much of the discord we feel comes from how far we’ve strayed from our roots. We are designed to think and feel more clearly when aligned with nature’s rhythms. Doing things like breathing clean forest air, sitting under trees and using our natural-born creativity – whether you think you are “good” or not – will do wonders to restore the mind and get it working in your best interest.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” – John Muir
Why do I think I always have to be getting somewhere?
Why do I think that the world isn’t strong enough to bear the burden of my shadow, so that I have to hide it and pretend everything is okay?
Why do I think the worst thing I can do is let people down, at the expense of my own truth?
Why am I scared I will never truly belong to the communities I love and respect so much?
Our thoughts can be dizzying, terrifying things.
If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself more than once getting dragged into a very deep and intense storyline produced by none other than your mind. It may have started with a simple nagging feeling, and rather than shrugging it off, you’ve let yourself get absorbed in a drama featuring such rambunctious characters as Doubt, Fear, Guilt, Hopelessness, Confusion and Thwarted Dreams.
While these journeys are scarier than any horror film, we accept them as fact with alarming ease.
We take them to be natural extensions of “who we are” and “how life is”, and because of this, they keep returning with a vengeance.
In Buddhism, there is the belief that we will face the same situations in life until we’ve finally learned the lesson. We’ll meet people and situations that trigger us is in similar ways, until we finally get it. If we think that “getting it” means blaming people because we know it’s their fault and avoiding our challenges because we “know” they are impossible, we are on the fast track to a sequel situation.
All this is because our minds are so good at taking us along our egoistic paths and abetting our desire to avoid confronting our deepest and truest selves.
It’s not very often that we take the time to “think about thinking,” or “how we think.” We tend to assume that our thoughts are merely an extension of us, and cannot lead us astray. We don’t really question the idea that we are our minds, so we don’t critically engage with what is happening as they tear loose and run wild.
We also know that we are simply not happy a lot of the time. We feel frustrated, dissatisfied, defeated, thrown for a loop, maybe backed into a corner.
When this happens, our first instinct is to leap right into the realm of why and how.
“Why has this problem occurred, and how can I fix it?”
Then we scramble, rationalizing our behaviour, finding ways to blame the perceived culprit of the problem, or else attacking the problem with apparent, potential solutions that are fuelled by our certainty that we’ve failed before and are doomed to fail again.
“Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” ~ Einstein
Problem solving is a skill we’ve developed as humans and has been key to our survival. Learning how to get from point A to point B and how to procure food and shelter, for instance, are great instances of how our thinking minds have been our ally.
However, when it comes to our more “negative” emotions and sense of being stuck, our highly evolved ability to problem-solve actually gets in the way and leads us to a dead end.
Because we are perceiving these things as “problems” in the first place.
Through meditation and mindfulness practice, we come to see that perceived problems are simply interior states, reactions of our bodies minds and spirits to our external circumstances and our habituated ways of being in the world due to our past behaviours and conditionings.
Rather than “solve,” we learn to “sit with” and accept, and understand the transient nature of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. We learn that gently regarding what is going on within us with respect but non-attachment lightens the heaviness we associate with problems, and allows us a more compassionate attitude toward our selves and the situation at hand.
We learn that “shrugging it off” does not mean avoidance, but the ability to observe how we are feeling, and watch as the feeling both arises and passes away. We even realize that problems are actually opportunities to learn and grow, which makes them the exact opposite of problems.
I’ve studied cinema for many years, and found that we can either be so absorbed and emotionally involved in a movie that we have lost all critical faculties, or that we can learn to pull back, and examine how the filmmakers constructed the film so that it could have such a powerful pull and effect on viewers.
It’s fascinating to realize that the same can be said of our minds.
We can learn to see our minds as constructions that can be understood and dismantled so that their power over our true nature can be lessened.
Sitting down with the intention of watching our thoughts appear and disappear, we see that these fickle entities are not the foundations of our identity, and from there, our opportunities to contemplate who we have become and how we can free ourselves are virtually endless.
We all know the credo, “you create your own reality,” which tells us that the contents of our mind give birth to the world we perceive around us.
But doesn’t something sit uneasy here? There is a lot of over-simplification with this idea—a favourite among the self-help books—that doesn’t seem to jive with how we feel most of the time.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because the times when we do feel happy and at ease— when it seems we are able to manifest the life we want—also serve to bring the other, less glorious times into sharper focus. We need to account for both tendencies in our lives if we want to have a more even-keeled relationship with the world, don’t we?
If it was as simple as “manifest anything, right now!” we would all have everything we’ve ever wanted, right? I’m talking about the spectrum running from an affordable trip around the world and time in which to do it, to eternal happiness and immortality (or whatever else floats your boat; the first three, at least, float mine!).
The ideas behind “create your own reality” are good ones. Taking steps to manage how we live our lives is empowering and valuable. Our attitude towards a person, event or situation very much impacts the outcome of these relationships.
But we need to be mindful of how many factors are at play when we consider our attitudes and our relationships, and just how much we have to work through to achieve harmony between self and world. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and contentment, enlightenment and a life governed by freedom are much more difficult to achieve than Rome was.
Patience is our greatest ally.
It takes more than well-wishing and “thinking it” to get there. Our beliefs are very important, but they need to run deeper than the more superficial layers of our mind. We can’t cheat ourselves into believing positive things. We have to believe it way-deep down to our proverbial (and actual) bones. We have to cause change from the inside out, which means we have to learn how to acquaint ourselves with—and then take charge of—our deepest and darkest shadows, so that the light can filter through to our daily reality. No easy task, but not an impossible one!
“Wake up in yourself a will to conquer. Not a mere will in the mind but a will in the very cells of your body. Without that you can’t do anything; you may take a hundred medicines but they won’t cure you.” ~ Mirra Alfassa (or “The Mother”, as she was known to followers of Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo)
The best thing that can happen to us on this road through life, I’ve come to believe, is to stumble upon the idea that we want to be truly free from suffering in its most profound forms, and to dig deep to find the motivation to do something about it. We may not have to dig at all. It may come as inspiration, intuition, or in any number of ways, if it’s the right time.
But then, we have to do the work, and this is where patience comes in. The seed that gave us our inspiration to begin the long haul toward taming the beasts within is one we should never stop believing in and tending to, no matter how grueling the road, or how small our progress seems.
Our bodies, minds and ‘spirit’—or whatever you want to call that place inside where intuition comes from—operate at different speeds.
As a tiny example, we really want to quit coffee and be rid of its monstrous hold. This doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need a few days to physically “reset” as a caffeine-free entity, or that our minds don’t need even longer to understand that it’s okay to be a human who doesn’t consume coffee while reading morning emails or hanging out with friends in the afternoon.
On a much grander scope, the healing process—and any move toward growth, I believe, involves healing—affects us on many different levels at once, and we need to let each aspect of us handle the changes taking place in their own way.
I might want to forgive someone. But another part of me—one that shows up as my racing heart, for example, or the aching pit in my stomach—that precedes thought or rationalization, still wants to react with fear, repulsion, resentment…you name it.
Meditation is an amazing thing. It helps us to see that what we feel emotionally is mapped onto our physical bodies. It helps us observe and then unify our experiences so that we can understand through observation and experience how our body-mind-spirit complex maneuvers through life.
Meditation helps by bringing us to our breath and the present moment, where we can experience rather than just know that our minds and bodies are part of the same vast conglomerate.
When we “come back to the breath” we are taking our mind, which has floated anywhere from our childhood best friend to our retirement cruise, right back into our body, here and now.
Once we’re “together” like this, we can begin to access the ever-deepening layers of who we are, based on all we’ve been.
It’s a fascinating process to observe the wisdom our intuitions bring us, followed by all the rationalizations our minds make to thwart said wisdom, and how are bodies are thrown in there like the child of a very bitter divorce, always trying to catch up with what happened ten fights ago, let alone what is going on right now.
Sometimes our body, like a young child, needs to yell and say, “Stop! I’m confused and I’m hurting! Be quiet for a minute, or take the fight into another room, and let me figure out what’s happening!”
Or sometimes our bodies are springing forward, full of energy, only to be halted by the workings of the mind—our doubts, fears and habitual negative thinking.
We must be patient.
Our bodies (or minds) are just trying to catch up with the work we’re doing, as long as we are determined to do the work and with good intention, because ultimately, we’re the ones in the driver’s seat. There is nothing that is happening within us that is not a movement toward growth, despite the tricks we know how to play on ourselves.
Even in these, I truly believe, we can learn to observe and transcend.
“Once you are conscious, it means that you can distinguish and sift things, you can see which are the forces that pull you down and which help you on. And when you know the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the divine from the undivine, you are to act strictly up to your knowledge; that is to say, resolutely reject one and accept the other. The duality will present itself at every step and at every step you will have to make your choice. You will have to be patient and persistent and vigilant.” ~ The Mother
We don’t, for the most part, question our instinct to go to the doctor for physical check-ups and to keep our bodily affairs in order.
But do we always remember do this with our psyches, or mental and emotional selves? Or do we shelve this kind of self-care for later, if we even think about it at all?
We often take these more invisible or hidden parts of ourselves for granted. We assume we can put off for later tending to those parts of us that are less glaringly problematic, despite some very important signs that we need attention—as we know, stress doesn’t have an obvious face, but presents itself in so many physical, debilitating forms.
Part of the issue is that we sometimes assume things don’t change all that dramatically within us, that we are some kind of fixed self who, for example, likes certain things and dislikes others, and has a certain set of priorities in life, and so on.
Because of this, we can tend to play out our lives on auto-pilot, without really determining if the things we are doing, and the people we are doing them with, are actually aligned with who we are at the present moment. Doing so works against the ability to live mindfully, to fully respect ourselves and others, the way we—and they—deserve.
It can be pretty daunting to think about having a nice, long sit-down with ourselves, to say hello, (re)introduce ourselves, and ask the all-important question of “what is going on.”
I had a great teacher who once said that we should always be asking this question—what is going on?—and ever since then, I’ve been unable to take this question lightly.
For example, he once showed a group of us a photo of a person—it was as simple as that. He then asked us, “What is going on here?”
We were quizzical, and remained silent.
“Think about it,” he said.
“It’s a person,” one of us answered.
“But what is really going on here?” the teacher continued. “Is this a person, or a photograph? Can a photograph of a person, just a piece of paper, be a person, and if it isn’t a person, why are we tempted to say it’s a person before we say that it is a photograph of a person?”
All at once, photography became a most complex, puzzling and mysterious medium, and I learned never to be complacent about what I think I know, and how I know it.
Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to self-knowledge and self-care.
Since we are always changing and evolving, whether we want to or not, we can learn very surprising things by honouring ourselves with a check-in.
We can check in with the self in a variety of ways, and we can do this all in our heads, say, on a long nature walk, or even better, by writing it down, which can force us to be more diligent and self-reflective about the process.
We can examine the state of our physical self.
How do I feel? Am I tired, frenetic, in balance? Are any muscles tighter than usual? Is anything out of alignment? Does anything hurt, or feel different than it used to? Am I getting headaches, and if I am, more or less than usual? Is there something my body needs now that it didn’t need before, and vice versa?
We can examine the state of our emotional self.
What feelings are going through me right now? What feelings have been cropping up repeatedly in my life recently? How have my feelings changed from the ones that used to preoccupy me? Am I angry, sad, frustrated, happy, at peace? How long do these feelings last? Do I feel I’m in control of my feelings? Which relationships bring me joy, and do I make enough time for them?
We can examine the state of our mental self.
What kinds of thoughts occupy my mind these days? Do I focus on the past? Do I fantasize or worry about the future? Am I distracted, or focused? What subjects are interesting to me, and do I make time for these things in my life? Do I feel balanced, and able to handle the tasks I have to do every day? How might I streamline better to function at my tasks at hand?
We can examine the state of our spiritual self.
Am I fulfilled? Do I feel something is missing? Is there harmony between myself, those around me and the environment? Is the way I spend my time in alignment with the way I want to be living my life? Do I know which life I want to have in an ideal world, and how can I move closer to that ideal?
If thinking about all this sounds daunting, it can be very helpful to answer these questions as lists, or in point form. Another great idea is to set aside some time to jot down a list of things you have learned as a result of your experiences. If you limit yourself to a relatively small number, like five things, you will force yourself to get to the most essential life lessons you feel you’ve acquired.
There’s a great chance that these top fives will surprise us, and tell us a lot about what our priorities are; this is a great starting point in thinking about the changes we can make to achieve more harmony within ourselves, and looking out to the world.
These intensive check-ins are like huge energy bubbles that can help sustain us in a chaotic world, helping us understand what makes us tick, so to speak, so that we can become more grounded in awareness of self. They also make periodic, mini check-ins easier to accomplish, so that we can develop a more fluid sense of our deepest and ever-evolving selves.
Doing these on a frequent basis—eventually, it can become as natural as breathing—will help us react with clarity and mindfulness when unexpected situations arise, difficult or otherwise, and integrate as fully and happily as possible into each moment of the life we are living.
“We must be willing to encounter darkness and despair when they come up and face them, over and over again if need be, without running away or numbing ourselves in the thousands of ways we conjure up to avoid the unavoidable.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Come and see: As above, so below; as below so in the sea; as high above so in the upper sea; as above, so below; as below so in the lower sea.” ~ Zohar Beshalach 2:48b
The personal is political and the political is personal, but we still see everything as separate and so we ask:
How did we get here? How has all this happened? How could there be such a mess here, in our midst, among us?
We want our brains to answer, scramble to form conclusions, but it’s our hearts that are hurting.
The temptation can be so strong, to hide under the covers where it’s warm and safe, even though we know deep down that in this state, nothing can enter and we can’t get out.
We try to change things without actually taking the steps needed to change from the inside out, and this is the primary—primal, even—contradiction in a vast sea of them; and the cycles of human suffering continue.
The solution isn’t to stop blaming others and start blaming ourselves, because accountability is not the same thing as blame, and because self-blame doesn’t solve the riddle of this mess we find ourselves in any better than blaming others does. Neither can we can’t blame the mess for being what it is, which is what we are.
But we are beautiful. Beautiful things shouldn’t be able to generate ugliness in the world.
Yet here we are. It is made, and some of it is very ugly.
Our contradictions and paradoxes are not to be avoided, or forever indulged. They come directly from us and they’re interesting, and need to be acknowledged, observed and witnessed.
Humanity, glorious as it is, is a messy adventure, whether we understand how we have come to be here and why, or not.
Our contradictions are the building blocks not of the world, but of our self-understanding.
We respond, for example, to notions like be positive, and go for it! with triumphant determination, but say no when resistance presents itself.
We don’t like facing resistance even though doing so engenders change and allows for creation.
We feel the need to go easy, the way of comfort, and resent that no revelations emerge on this path.
We want to fly without leaving the ground.
We want to think through our feelings and infuse our dreams with common sense.
We think sad is wrong and happy is right—we think there is wrong and right, like we think there is you and there is me and that our existence in no way depends on each other.
We think that, from the position of separation, we can know the realities of the other.
We think we can filter everything through a framework of knowledge and wonder why we aren’t reaping the rewards faith brings.
We think the only way to feel good is to feel good immediately, and always.
We think there is an always, even though nothing lasts as long as you can hold it, and we’re going to die.
We think dying is something to be avoided though dying is inevitable, without exception.
We think living long is better than living well, without wondering where this idea comes from.
We think we can run away.
We want to make the best use of our time and then clutter our minds and environments with distraction.
We want to be understood within this cluttered environment filled with distraction.
We want clarity without making things around us clear and free.
We want to see through the mess of our own creation.
We want. We run in circles. We want some more.
The beautiful thing, though, one of the most precious things about being human, I think, is that we do want to see, to understand.
And this is because of love. Love compels us to emerge from the chaos and into something something softer.
Because we have consciousness (which is love-fueled), we have the drive and impulse to get down to the bottom of things, to have clear vision and a space for compassion. This unites us even as our distractions and messes attempt to pull us apart.
This strong pull toward the best kind of survival—a mindful, conscious, clear and compassionate survival — is something we should be so grateful to have in our human arsenal.
With it, we can move toward self-enquiry, find the deep, quiet spaces within, from where we can glimpse at the idea that there are no real contradictions, and start to plant the seeds of a wise transformation, though we are not yet always wise.
Seeing past our contradictions, guided by love: this is the great, human hope amid a mess that need not remain.
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
~ Maya Angelou
“Curving back within myself, I create again and again.” ~ The Bhagavad Gita
The word “creativity” can be a daunting one.
It conjures images of world-famous artists—visual artists, writers, dancers, among others—bringing breathtaking works into the world, and being validated by certain criteria (by no means objective) for what makes good art.
But in an age when we are becoming increasingly aware of the toll social media and information saturation is having on our brains, and of our need to become more grounded and in sync with the rhythms of nature—our entire sense of well-being depends on this—it’s more important than ever that we really embrace a definition of creativity that makes it available for all of us.
In other words, let’s not forget that for every Mona Lisa, there is a 10-year-old finding a “creative solution” to avoiding punishment by his or her parents, and for every “Moby Dick,” there’s a grandpa captivating a roomful of relatives with an amazing story.
Nobody fully understands what creativity is or where it comes from, which is why there is so much fascinating talk around the subject. I’d like to humbly offer a few opinions here, and would love for them to be taken as inspiration for discussion rather than the final say on the matter.
Considering creativity as the exclusive domain of the fine arts, as we tend to do, can end up an act of self-sabotage, which is why we need to remember how broad creativity really is, so that it stops being such a potentially terrifying word, representing something that is beyond our grasp.
“There is no one definitive creative path. There are many ways to be creative—not only intuitive ways but organized, logical ways, too.” ~ Theresa Bayer
We are all creative. How do we know this? Because we’re alive.
We don’t just know this because evidence goes back at least 17,300 years, when Paleolithic images depicting animals were painted onto cave walls in what is now France as an early instance of the tendency toward art-making.
We are not creative exclusively because we have the urge to manifest images (or audio, or words) representing ourselves, the human experience, and our world—and the workings of our mind and psyche. Rather, we do these things because we are inherently creative. There are so many factors that play into how we end up fostering and nurturing this innate creativity within us.
Being alive is always and already a creative act. We were created by our parents are our ancestors before them. We are borne of a pretty magical and fortuitous act of making, and our lives are the most beautiful possible and foundational form of the creative process.
“The creation of the world did not take place once and for all time, but takes place every day.” ~ Samuel Beckett
This must be why we are drawn to express ourselves and our “creativity.” We want to give back, to express, what was put into our own making. To be in harmony with the universe is to be an ever-evolving creative force within a larger creative entity.
But then we get stuck. We think we have to “be creative.” Not everyone, or all the time. But I think most of us get that restless feeling where we “should be doing more,” or “doing something creative.” Then we bury our deepest impulses under a pile of insecurities and assume creativity is best left for others.
When did creativity become such a problematic and loaded idea for us?
Why do we “play house” or “play doctor” when we’re kids? Why do we pick up our crayons and draw flowers but also completely invent creatures as kids? Right from the start, we are emitting the passions of the world, seen and imagined, right back into it. This is such a beautiful thing.
Kids don’t think about art shows or critiques or external validation. Without consciously knowing it, they understand that to live is to be creative. They play, and what is more creative than playing, and unleashing the imagination without concern about outcome?
We do this as adults too, in our less self-conscious moments. We trail our fingers along the sand, making patterns. We arrange food on our plates in aesthetically pleasing ways and we daydream magnificent creations for our lives.
Certainly, our natural creativity can translate into beautiful art, and even in this realm, we get stuck. We are conditioned to feel that painters can’t also be musicians, that writers cannot be good sculptors, and so on. When we start showing an interest in an art form, we’re encouraged to “stick to one area,” that this is where our natural abilities lie.
Have you seen John Lennon’s sketches? Have you seen John Mellencamp’s paintings? Many musicians, in fact, are known for their visual artwork; a general search for crossover creativity online will generate many examples.
In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered what they call “neuroplasticity,” that we have “plastic” brains. At any point in life, we can forge new pathways in our brains, which effectively means that our brains are highly creative in themselves (as mirrors of the universe, they must be!) and allow for us to ever-expand our abilities. The reverse holds true, too. What you don’t use and cultivate, falls off to the wayside.
I know that every time I take a break from painting (often) or journal writing (far less often), I have to work the kinks out of my head and oil the proverbial machinery before I can really get a groove going.
Anything, though, can be a creative act, as an extension of our inherently creative being. I’m not a writer because I’m an artist; rather, I write because this is one of the many possible ways I can honour the world and my relationship to it. It’s a form that I instinctively and naturally feel drawn to, and we can all find our own unique sources of enjoyment by seeking out what moves us.
To me, creative living means doing what you do with passion, authenticity and integrity, with a genuine desire to communicate our own unique presence in the world with others. We can do this by planting tomatoes, tie-dying a shirt, helping those in need, really listening to someone when they speak to us.
The tiniest actions laid bare with passion are already creative, and can very well lead to a motivation on our part to be ever-more creative, until we finally understand what was there all along: creativity is not a goal, but the foundation of our (ideal) mode of being. What flows from this might be a staggering revelation about what we want and have the ability to do.
The way to be what we already are—daringly, gorgeously creative—is to acknowledge that we already have all the tools we need, just by being fully and consciously ourselves.
And now, here it is: 10 ways to get the ball rolling and find yourself already, unexpectedly creative:
1. Listen to a new song twice; once for the melody and once for the lyrics.
2. Have an in-person conversation, and try to scale back on the talking and focus on the listening.
3. Look for shapes in the clouds.
4. Try writing with the hand you don’t normally write with.
5. Write a letter or postcard to someone by hand.
6. Look in the mirror and draw your face on a piece of paper without looking down at what you’re doing.
7. Go out and take take photos of 10 things you’ve never noticed before on your street.
8. Organize your mess of computer files (or, if they’re already super organized, organize them into a new set of categories).
9. Attempt a headstand or handstand so you can see the world from upside down.
10. Close your eyes, and pay attention to every detail of what’s going on in your navel as you take three deep breaths.
Here’s a great quote by Ira Glass on how creativity needs to, and can be cultivated:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”