Mysticism and creativity

Mysticism and creativity seem to have much in common.

In Jason Brown’s paper, “The Inward Path: Mysticism and Creativity”, (Creativity Research Journal, 20:4, 365 – 375, 2008) he draws many comparisons between the world of the mystic and the world of the artist.

Both artists and mystics have been inspired throughout the ages by divine powers, or muses. This is a heavenly place in consciousness that both mystic and artist retreat into to gather inspiration. The origin of the verb ‘inspire’ is actually “to take in spirit”.

Together, both artists and mystics seek truth, often through inner retreat. Both therefore have a need for isolation so that their acts of devotion may be performed and preparation is made for incubation and hopefully, enlightenment. A proper training is required by both the mystic and the artist, and both journeys involve a mysterious process, which is highly personal. Both have a desire for immortality and seek to channel a higher power in everyday life.

However, Brown suggests that “the mystic leaves the world the artist returns to” and reminds us that the mystic has no obligation to share or express his or her divine messages. It has long been said that “the arts are the messengers of the gods” and in Brown’s essay he points out that artists bring back inspiration from their divine source to share with the world creatively, a feeling shared by Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Eat, Pray and Love.

Starting from the mystical, you can journey outwards into artistic expression. Can you also go back the other way? Can you look at a piece of art and look so deep into its source that you start to function at a higher level of consciousness?

The positivist in me says yes, definitely with certain pieces of music and art. For me, it would be Jim Long Uen’s delightful Buddhist Chants and Peace Music. The sounds and melodies of that piece take me to a divine place, every time I listen.  

The same thing happens to me with great works of classical art – Michaelangelo or Titian for example.

Have you ever had this experience with a work of art?

The body, according to Brown, is a deciding factor in volition, and separates the mystic from the artistic experience. I have to agree. The mystic, in meditation for example, may seek to deny the body any self-expression, while the artist seeks to channel the divine through his or her physical being, even though he may start with only a thought or mental image.

Brown also proposes that the mystic experiences a loss of subject/object boundary, whereas the artist does not. However in my own work, I have found some evidence to the contrary. Some forms of artistic expression like improvisation have this same aim: to make action one with reaction and create a holistic union between audience and performer. This usually involves a dissolving of the subject/object boundary and a surrender of volition to the genius or divine outside of the self.

Perhaps the distinction is then between the act itself and the product. Van Gogh’s chair seems to embody the very essence of chairness so much that it is easy to imagine him painting in a trance-like state, guided by unity with his subject and in fully inspired flow. Standing back to assess the work afterwards then requires the painter to separate the artistry from artwork.

Brown’s article has much more to offer on this subject. You can download it for free as a trial of the excellent Creativity Research Journal. More details can be found here.

What inspires you?

Genius is outside the self

I have the answer to where my genius comes from.

This week, I have been taking part in a clowning workshop run by Peta Lily.

Our exercises often mean we have to make the audience laugh, and be funny.

Lately I was intrigued by Elizabeth Gilbert‘s theory that genius is not internal, but external, and a sort of muse that we can call upon. (See my recent blog Where do ideas come from? for more details.)

During clowning, I decided to test this theory for myself. In preparation for clowning, the actor should spend a minute being with themselves and getting themselves into the ‘clown state’. This is best described as getting simple-minded and seeing everything as endless potential for enthusiasm.

During this phase, I repeated my exercises to get into clown state, and also emptied my mind and invited genius to come.

The exercise went well. At the end, Peta asked us to high-five each other with the words, “You are a comedy genius!”. I was very aware that the comedy genius was not me, but a visiting muse who had graciously helped me channel the divine comedy.

Later on in the week, I repeated the invitation to genius. I wasn’t always successful or funny.

But what a difference it made to my state of mind! After an ‘unsuccessful’ exercise, I didn’t beat myself up. I wasn’t a failure. The genius just wasn’t up to scratch right at that moment.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s theory has helped me not to take failure personally, and not get too big-headed about my successes.

Why not invite the muse next time you need to get creative?

Creative but bored?

Did you make a career out of doing what you love, but now find that you’ve lost that original passion? Has it become more about making money than loving what you do?

Todd Henry from The Accidental Creative suggests that commerce may cause a conflict between creating for others and creating for yourself.

In Henry’s podcast interview with “Freeplay” author Stephen Nachmanovitch, they discuss this dynamic. Nachmanovitch reminds us of how hard it can be to balance inspiration with commerce. As artists we have all had to produce something creative on demand that pays the bills, while we’d rather work on our own unpaid labour of love.

Nachmanovitch uses the analogy of the painter, who leaves his inspired canvases with a gallery. One year on, the gallery want more of ‘the yellow ones’ because they sold so well. However, by this time, the artist has moved on. He now has other influences. His Muse is no longer with ‘the yellow ones’ and so recreating them becomes a lifeless enterprise.

So how do we, as creatives, keep it fresh? And is repetition always equivalent to lifelessness?

A good performance artist would say not. My background is in theatre, and one thing I learnt in acting school was the importance of keeping the performance fresh every night. No matter how bored you got with saying the same old lines, you had a duty to the audience as new customers, to give them good value for their money.

There are many techniques to ‘keep it fresh’. One way is to remain present. All live art has the potential to change, and every performance has a slightly different energy and audience every night. By learning to tune into these nuances, a good actor will discover new reasons to speak and act every night, keeping some elements of the performace spontaneous. Perhaps the emotion with which the line is said will change, perhaps the gesture… Either way this involves stepping on stage with an openness to new energies.

This change of perception is available to us all, and may be a skill that artists excel in anyway. Often what we call ‘vision’ is the ability to tune into what most people find boring and make it intersting. Even painting another ‘yellow one’ involves a fresh canvas with its own unique texture; every panel has its own snags and warps, every brushstroke has a different feel.

According to the Zen phrase, life is all about “Chopping wood and carrying water.” This has a very simple meaning. Every day is repetitive. What we must do is perform every action, no matter how insignificant or repetitive, with full life and presence. We must surrender to the activity and become one with it.

How often have you felt that your greatest works have been the ones that ‘just naturally happened’? The art just seemed to flow out of you, or you became completely immersed in your project. You surrendered completely to your work and became one with it. Often, this is what we mean when we say we are ‘inspired’. Perhaps this sense of oneness and the subsequent ease of flow is what we mean by inspiration.

And if the Buddhists are right, then this sense of oneness does not just come and go, but is learned.

So next time you really don’t want to do what you’re doing, try giving it your full attention. Treat it with full respect. Focus on your breathing. Stop pretending you know exactly where this will lead. Allow yourself to have a new sense of wonder.

The truth is that there is no repetition. Every new undertaking, no matter how mundane, can be an adventure.