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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

04 JULY, 2014

How to Get Out of Your Own Way and Unblock the “Spiritual Electricity” of Creative Flow

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“No matter what your age or your life path … it is not too late or too egotistical or too selfish or too silly to work on your creativity.”

“Art is not a thing — it is a way,” Elbert Hubbard wrote in 1908. But the question of what that way is, where exactly it leads, and how to best follow it is something artists have been grappling with since the dawn of recorded time and psychologists have spent decades trying to decode, outlining the stages of creativity, its essential conditions, and the best technique for producing ideas.

In 1978, a few months after she stopped drinking, artist, poet, playwright, novelist, filmmaker, composer, and journalist Julia Cameron began teaching artists — by the broadest possible definition — how to overcome creative block and get back on their feet after a “creative injury.” What began as one-on-one lessons with a handful of artists became a larger workshop, then a course, which Cameron was invited to teach around the world, and eventually The Artist’s Way (public library) — a seminal, much-beloved handbook on the creative life, exploring its gateways, its obstacles, and how we can get out of our own way. It’s at once a practical set of techniques and a timeless philosophical meditation on the quintessential human impulse to create.

Art by Sydney Pink from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

Writing in the introduction to the 10th anniversary edition, Cameron adds to the most beautiful definitions of art:

Art is a spiritual transaction. Artists are visionaries. We routinely practice a form of faith, seeing clearly and moving toward a creative goal that shimmers in the distance — often visible to us, but invisible to those around us. Difficult as it is to remember, it is our work that creates the market, not the market that creates our work. Art is an act of faith, and we practice practicing it.

Indeed, while there is a strong spiritual overtone to the book that can feel off-putting to those of us skeptical of organized religion, Cameron takes care to invite the broadest possible definition of spirituality, echoing Flannery O’Connor and pointing out that it need not be one aligned with religion at all. She writes:

Think of it as an exercise in open-mindedness. . . . Remind yourself that to succeed in this course, no god concept is necessary. In fact, many of our commonly held god concepts get in the way. Do not allow semantics to become one more block for you. When the word God is used in these pages, you may substitute the thought good orderly direction or flow. What we are talking about is a creative energy. . . . There seems to be no need to name it unless that name is a useful shorthand for what you experience.

Art by Vladimir Radunsky from Mark Twain's 'Advice to Little Girls.' Click image for more.

That creative energy, Cameron argues, is part of our core nature. Rather than learning it, we simply need to unlearn all the techniques we’ve acquired for blocking it in the course of living our Serious Adult Lives. She writes:

No matter what your age or your life path, whether making art is your career or your hobby or your dream, it is not too late or too egotistical or too selfish or too silly to work on your creativity. . . . I have come to believe that creativity is our true nature, that blocks are an unnatural thwarting of a process at once as normal and as miraculous as the blossoming of a flower at the end of a slender green stem.

Like T.S. Eliot, who extolled the mystical quality of creativity, Cameron recounts her own journey of learning to unblock that natural creative flow — the life-force Dylan Thomas memorably called “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” — and considers the nonjudgmental mind necessary for true creative work:

I learned to turn my creativity over to the only god I could believe in, the god of creativity, I learned to get out of the way and let that creative force work through me… I learned to just show up at the page and write down what I heard. Writing became more like eavesdropping and less like inventing a nuclear bomb. It wasn’t so tricky, and it didn’t blow up on me anymore. I didn’t have to be in the mood. I didn’t have to take my emotional temperature to see if inspiration was pending. I simply wrote. No negotiations. Good, bad? None of my business. I wasn’t doing it. By resigning as the self-conscious author, I wrote freely.

This concept of surrender seems closer to Eastern philosophical teachings about the unity of the universe than it is to the Western notion of divinity in the religious sense. Cameron writes:

If you think of the universe as a vast electrical sea in which you are immersed and from which you are formed, opening to your creativity changes you from something bobbing in that sea to a more fully functioning, more conscious, more cooperative part of that ecosystem.

Art by Lisa Congdon from 'Whatever You Are, Be a Good One.' Click image for more.

And yet, with a hint of Wattsian distinction between belief and faith, Cameron makes a case for the “spiritual electricity” implicit to the creative process and writes:

The heart of creativity is an experience of the mystical union; the heart of the mystical union is an experience of creativity. . . . Creativity is an experience — to my eye, a spiritual experience. It does not matter which way you think of it: creativity leading to spirituality or spirituality leading to creativity. In fact, I do not make a distinction between the two. In the face of such experience, the whole question of belief is rendered obsolete. As Carl Jung answered the question of belief late in his life, “I don’t believe; I know.”

This circular relationship between creativity and spirituality, Cameron argues, is paralleled by the techniques and practices of her “unblocking method.” In a wonderfully reassuring passage, she writes of the “spiral path” toward creative recovery:

You will circle through some of the issues over and over, each time at a different level. There is no such thing as being done with an artistic life. Frustrations and rewards exist at all levels on the path. Our aim here is to find the trail, establish our footing, and begin the climb.

But despite the spiral nature of the path, Cameron draws on her extensive experience of working with artists to outline several stages of the creative recovery process — stages strikingly similar to those of grief, perhaps because the process itself necessitates that we let go of the attachments and psychoemotional habits that stand in the way of our contact with creative energy. Cameron writes:

While there is no quick fix for instant, pain-free creativity, creative recovery (or discovery) is a teachable, trackable spiritual process. Each of us is complex and highly individual, yet there are common recognizable denominators to the creative recovery process.

Working with this process, I see a certain amount of defiance and giddiness in the first few weeks. This entry stage is followed closely by explosive anger in the course’s midsection. The anger is followed by grief, then alternating waves of resistance and hope. This peaks-and-valleys phase of growth becomes a series of expansions and contractions, a birthing process in which students experience intense elation and defensive skepticism.

This choppy growth phase is followed by a strong urge to abandon the process and return to life as we know it. In other words, a bargaining period. People are often tempted to abandon the course at this point. I call this a creative U-turn. Re-commitment to the process next triggers the free-fall of a major ego surrender. Following this, the final phase of the course is characterized by a new sense of self marked by increased autonomy, resilience, expectancy, and excitement—as well as by the capacity to make and execute concrete creative plans.

If this sounds like a lot of emotional tumult, it is. When we engage in a creativity recovery, we enter into a withdrawal process from life as we know it. Withdrawal is another way of saying detachment or nonattachment, which is emblematic of consistent work with any meditation practice.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice in Wonderland.' Click image for more.

But Cameron’s most salient and empowering point is about the direction of the withdrawal:

We ourselves are the substance we withdraw to, not from, as we pull our overextended and misplaced creative energy back into our own core.

What stands between us and that return to our core is the chronic perfectionism against which Anne Lamott so eloquently admonished. Cameron writes:

We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. . . . Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice. By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor.

In the remainder of The Artist’s Way, Cameron becomes the trusted sherpa on “an intensive, guided encounter with your own creativity — your private villains, champions, wishes, fears, dreams, hopes, and triumphs” — the kind of experience that will “make you excited, depressed, angry, afraid, joyous, hopeful, and, ultimately, more free.” Complement it with Lamott’s indispensable Bird by Bird, Neil Gaiman on making great art, and Anna Deavere Smith on what creative confidence really means.

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03 JULY, 2014

Isaac Asimov on Optimism vs. Cynicism about the Human Spirit

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Why cynicism is, above all, a disservice to our own happiness.

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman,” E.B. White wrote in a letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, “the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” A beautiful and soul-expanding counterpart to the power of optimism in the human spirit that White advocates comes from science-fiction icon Isaac Asimov, found in his posthumously published It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a rich selection of the author’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, which also gave us Asimov’s wisdom on humanism and science vs. spirituality.

The book itself is titled after some of Asimov’s last words to his wife, but the most magnificent embodiment of his faith in life’s goodness comes from a letter to one of his friends. Asimov writes:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable about enjoying the good things.

Asimov later echoed this sentiment in his spectacular conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988, in discussing the ideas of heaven, hell, and all the artificial ways in which religion tries to keep human goodness in check:

It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn’t it conceivable a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better?

It’s Been a Good Life, featuring selections from Asimov’s first three autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), is a fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov’s wonderful 1983 Muppet magazine interview on curiosity, risk-taking, and the value of space exploration.

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01 JULY, 2014

The Science of Mental Time Travel: Memory and How Our Ability to Imagine the Future Made Us Human

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Shedding light on “the cognitive rudder that allows our brains to navigate the river of time.”

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland remains one of my all-time favorite books, largely because Carroll taps his training as a logician to imbue the whimsical story with an allegorical dimension that blends the poetic with the philosophical. To wit: The Red Queen remembers the future instead of the past — an absurd proposition so long as we think of time as linear and memory as beholden to the past, and yet a prescient one given how quantum physics (coincidentally, a perfect allegorical exploration of Wonderland) conceives of time and what modern cognitive science tells us about how elastic our experience of time is. As it turns out, the Red Queen is far more representative of how human memory actually works than we dare believe.

Illustration from Alice in Wonderland by Lisbeth Zwerger. (Click image for details)

“To be human,” writes Dan Falk in In Search of Time: The History, Physics, and Philosophy of Time (public library), “is to be aware of the passage of time; no concept lies closer to the core of our consciousness” — something evidenced by our millennia-old quest to map this invisible dimension. One of the most remarkable and evolutionarily essential elements of experiencing time through human consciousness is something psychologists and cognitive scientists call mental time travel — a potent bi-directional projection that combines episodic memory, which allows us to draw on our autobiographical experience and call up events, experiences, and emotions that occurred in the past, with the ability to imagine and anticipate future events. Falk puts it unambiguously:

Without it, there would be no planning, no building, no culture; without an imagined picture of the future, our civilization would not exist.

As it turns out, episodic memory — a term coined in the early 1970s by Canadian neuroscientist Endel Tulving, author of the seminal book Elements of Episodic Memory — is central to our capacity for mental time travel and, according to many scientists, fairly unique to humans. Unlike other facets of memory, such as the acquisition of new skills, which are rooted in the here-and-now, Falk points out that episodic memory allows us “to peer back across time, using our imagination to revisit just about any event that we choose.” This mental reliving of the past may be the root of some distinct human maladies — take the wistful reminiscence over a lost love, for instance — but it is also central to our evolutionary survival, allowing us to anticipate future outcomes based on past ones and thus to plan better and be more prepared for what tomorrow may bring. (The dark side of this evolutionarily beneficial faculty is that our over-planning often ends up shortchanging our happiness.)

And yet the benefits outweigh the costs, in evolutionary terms. Falk explains:

The capacity for mental time travel gave our ancestors an invaluable edge in the struggle for survival. They believe there is a profound link between remembering the past and imagining the future. The very act of remembering, they argue, gives one the “raw material” needed to construct plausible scenarios of future events and act accordingly. Mental time travel “provides increased behavioral flexibility to act in the present to increase future survival chances.” If this argument is correct, then mental time travel into the past — remembering — “is subsidiary to our ability to imagine future scenarios.” Tulving agrees: “What is the benefit of knowing what has happened in the past? Why do you care? The importance is that you’ve learned a lesson,” he says. “Perhaps the evolutionary advantage has to do with the future rather than the past.”

Modern neuroscience appears to confirm that line of reasoning: as far as your brain is concerned, the act of remembering is indeed very similar to the act of imagining the future.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s; from Cartographies of Time. (Click image for details)

Though we might not be able to “remember” the future, as the Red Queen does, we do envision it in ways strikingly similar to how we picture events from the past — Falk notes that fMRI studies indicate we use similar regions in the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes when thinking about events in either direction of time. What’s more, psychologists have found that much like it’s harder for us to remember an event in the distant past than a recent one, it’s harder for us to imagine an event in the distant future than one expected to take place soon. This hints at the massively misguided way in which we think of and evaluate memory, which we falsely depict as a recording device, versus foresight. Falk writes:

When we imagine the future, we know what we picture is really just an educated guess; we may be right in the broad brushstrokes, but we are almost certainly wrong in the details. We hold memory to a higher standard. We feel — most of the time — that our memories are more than guesses, that they reflect what really happened. When confronted with a conflicting account of how last week’s party unfolded, we cling to our beliefs: He must be mistaken; I know what I saw.

Falk cites the Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter:

[The brain is] a fundamentally prospective organ that is designed to use information from the past and the present to generate predictions about the future. Memory can be thought of as a tool used by the prospective brain to generate simulations of possible future events… We tend to think of memory as having primarily to do with the past… And maybe one reason we have it is so that we can have a warm feeling when we reminisce, and so on. But I think the thing that has been neglected is its role in allowing us to predict and simulate the future.

Artwork by Andy Goldsworthy from his project 'Time.' (Click image for details)

In order to mentally time-travel into the future, the brain has to accomplish a couple of things at once — we activate our “semantic memory,” which encompasses our basic knowledge of facts about the world and thus helps paint a backdrop for the imagined scene, and we call on our episodic memory, which pulls on our autobiographical library of remembered experiences to fill in specific details for this general scene. Curiously, episodic memory tends to be rather flawed but, according to two scientists Falk quotes, that’s okay since its core purpose is to provide “a more general toolbox that allowed us to escape from the present and develop foresight, and perhaps create a sense of personal identity.”

To be sure, just like elsewhere in cognitive science, human exceptionalism may be misplaced here — scientists have found that other species are also capable of varying degrees of mental time travel. Falk cites one of the most intriguing experiments, involving scrub jays. He writes:

Psychologist Nicola Clayton and her colleagues housed the birds on alternate days in two different compartments — one in which the jays always received “breakfast,” and one in which they did not. Then the birds were unexpectedly given extra food in the evening, at a location where they could access either compartment. The jays promptly cached their surplus — and they preferentially cached it in the “no breakfast” compartment. Because the birds were not hungry at the time of the caching, the researchers claim that the birds truly anticipated the hunger they would experience the next morning.

Still, the fact that humans are capable of remarkably elaborate and detailed mental time travel reveals something unique about our evolution and the development of such hallmarks of humanity as language and theory of mind. Falk writes:

In all likelihood, the capacity for mental time travel did not develop in isolation but rather alongside other crucial cognitive abilities. “To entertain a future event one needs some kind of imagination,” [the prominent psychologists Thomas] Suddendorf and [Michael] Corballis write, “some kind of representational space in our mind for the imaginary performance.” Language could also play an important role. Our language skills embrace mental time travel by the use of tenses and recursive thinking; when we say “A year from now, he will have retired,” we’re imagining a future time in which some event — which has not yet happened — will lie in the past… Mental time travel may have been “a pre-requisite to the evolution of language itself.” If mental time travel is indeed unique to humans, it may help us understand why complex language is also, apparently, unique.

In fact, the development of mental time travel may even be how the concept of time itself came into existence — according to Suddendorf and Corballis, our species emerged victorious in “an extraordinary evolutionary arms race” largely due to our growing capacity for foresight and sophisticated language, which not only gave us culture and “coordinated aggression” but also, for the first time in evolutionary history, enabled us to understand the concepts of “past” and “future.” The mental reconstruction of what has been and the imagining of what could be, they argue, created the concept of time and enabled us to understand the continuity between the past and the future. Falk, once again, puts it succinctly:

Mental time travel may indeed be the cognitive rudder that allows our brains to navigate the river of time.

In Search of Time is a fantastic read in its entirety, covering such facets of life’s most intricate dimension as how the calendar was born, why illusion and reality aren’t always so discernible from one another, and what the ultimate fate of the universe might be. Complement it with these seven excellent books on time and a fascinating read on how our memory works.

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