A Life of Mindful Creativity
"What attracted me was less art itself than the artist’s life and all that it meant for me: the idea of creativity and freedom of expression and action. I had been attracted to painting and drawing for a long time, but it was not an irresistible passion; what I wanted, at all costs, was to escape the monotony of life."
- Pierre Bonnard
All of us have had the experience of being totally engaged in something—a movie, an afternoon of adventure, or a new love affair—and, like Bonnard, we seek lives steeped in such experiences. Bonnard found creative engagement in painting and lived a rich life that many dream of and most consider the realm of only a few special, talented people. That belief, however, is wrong. Complete, creative engagement in all that we do is the natural response to our world; it need not be extraordinary at all. It is, in fact, the experience we have when we are at play. Whether it’s at play or in a more serious pursuit, if we approach the opportunity at hand creatively, we will experience such engagement. In the best of all worlds, a life of total engagement would be the norm, although in reality too many of us don’t see the opportunity before us. What’s more, we seem to do everything possible to prevent it from happening.
Too much of the time, we are not seeing, hearing, tasting, or experiencing what would turn lives troubled by boredom and loneliness into lives that are rich and exciting. We unwittingly give up our potential for creative endeavor and in the process live sealed in unlived lives, where monotony is the rule rather than the exception. Creativity is not a blessing some special few are born with or receive from above. Our creative nature is an integral part of our daily lives, expressed through our culture, our language, and even our most mundane activities. “Art,” wrote the painter Robert Henri, “when really understood is the province of every human being.”
This book is about the roadblocks that stand in the way of our natural creativity. It is intended to be a guide to opening up to creative engagement on a daily basis in all that we do. Imagine being very hungry and wandering into a room with a table full of delicious food. If the room were empty of people, none of us would need any extra motivation. We would taste some of everything, eat what we liked, and enjoy the feast. But fill the room with people and we would face a host of concerns that would give us pause: how the others might judge us if we filled our plates; whether we shouldn’t, given the circumstances, watch our weight instead of eating heartily; or whether to listen to the judgments of others about the merits of a particular dish. Faced with such socially induced concerns, we might well remain hungry. In the same way, there are socially constructed roadblocks that keep us from experiencing our creative selves. While some may argue that it is a good thing to learn to curb our appetite at times, I don’t think any would argue that it is to our benefit to forgo the pleasure of our natural creativity.
Engaging our creativity more fully, giving it a form that holds some innate interest, ought be part of everyday life for each of us. How often have we neglected activities like art, music, writing, dance—or a host of other creative endeavors—as we pursue careers and families? We might regretfully add them to the list of things we’ll get to later, but we think little about why we are doing so. Then one day we realize that now is yesterday’s later. We typically regard such creative pursuits as “leisure” activities, and that word suggests they are rather unimportant. They may well, however, hold the key to the problem of finding meaning and fulfillment in the rest of our lives. Because we take them to be for our “leisure,” they need not carry the threat to our self-esteem that changes in other aspects of our lives do.
Unfortunately, our culture leads us to evaluate almost everything we do, even our works of art, music, literature, and every other creative product. We look at the end product and pass judgment on whether it is “creative” or not without regard for whether a mindfully engaged individual created it. We distinguish the product from the experience of creating it. For most of us, it is a terrifying prospect to imagine being judged in this way. If we could put aside our concern for others’ judgment of the product, however, creative engagement could transform our lives through whatever creative endeavors we might choose. We can learn to choose to engage creatively in any number of ways, simply by learning how to be mindful.
Mindfulness is an effortless, simple process that consists of drawing novel distinctions, that is, noticing new things. The more we notice, the more we become aware of how things change depending on the context and perspective from which they are viewed. Mindfulness requires, however, that we give up the fixed ways in which we’ve learned to look at the world. Most of us confuse the stability of our mind-sets with the stability of the underlying phenomena, and we come to think that things are, will always be, and even need to be a particular way without recognizing how they may also vary. It isn’t as though we need or want to be so rigid. We celebrate as creative those who show us how the commonplace may be made different. Many of the mind-sets that hold us back, that deny us our own mindful creativity, are culturally reinforced roadblocks.
Learning how to remove the roadblocks that keep us from a more creative life can bring benefits to the rest of our lives. We may be able to learn to be mindfully creative in all respects and at all times. If we would prosper from this mindfulness, why is the path to creative engagement so often blocked? As much as we’d love to play the recorder or write poetry, it’s easier and safer to put it off because we are afraid of making fools of ourselves. Of course, we know we shouldn’t worry about what other people think, but we do. Or when we actually give writing or drawing a try, the trying turns out to be more terrifying still, and we too quickly put our creative activity aside. Something interferes with just enjoying painting or playing an instrument for the pleasure it brings us.
Most of us don’t really understand what keeps us from doing things that we are otherwise drawn to. The answers to that question interest me, both as a psychologist and as an artist. What exactly are the obstacles that keep people from engaging in a more creative life? How do these obstacles prevent us from getting started and then from more fully enjoying creative pursuits? Can we learn to engage our creative interests on the terms we seek? What would be the benefits of doing so? I have studied exactly these questions in my scientific life, and I know there are answers that can help virtually anyone become creatively engaged. As an artist, I have seen for myself how a creative endeavor, done mindfully, can teach us to lead more rewarding lives in all respects.
Mindfulness, and its counterpart, mindlessness, are states of mind that I’ve studied and written about for many years, and I know how potent a force mindfulness can be. As important, I know that people can learn to remake their ways of thinking to be more mindful. In my experience, each of us has the potential for a renaissance, an age defined by a creative, purposeful, and engaged life. It doesn’t matter whether the creative work we choose is painting, dance, fiction, poetry, or music. What matters is pursuing it mindfully. How do we get from beginning some new activity to a personal renaissance? Learning what things stand in the way of our comfortably engaging in some leisure activity, and how to break down these roadblocks as we experience them provides the practice we need to deal with our more familiar stresses and fears. Once examined through this new lens, many of our “problems” fall by the roadside. We can, it turns out, pursue art for art’s sake and art for life’s sake, and it matters little what that art is. Any creative activity can have a powerful effect on our lives if we pursue it mindfully and recognize the ways in which old familiar fears and habits can be set aside to make room for the personal renaissance we seek.
I also know from personal experience and scientific study that people can, through the pursuit of their creative interests, enjoy the many benefits of a mindful life. We need not be trapped by fixed mind-sets, we can learn to recategorize the world, to change the way in which we define and approach events and our impressions of them. We can gain an enhanced receptivity to new information and an openness to new points of view. A mindful life can also give us increased control over the context of our lives and a new appreciation of process over outcome.
It doesn’t matter what we choose to do. For my personal renaissance I chose painting. Rather than study any particular school of art, such as Abstract Expressionism or Pop Art, or even define myself as self-taught (which itself turns out to be another school), I wanted to begin a new group or school: Untaught Art. It is a school unlike any other you may be familiar with. The defining characteristic of Untaught Art is the pursuit of creativity with attention to the process of engagement, rather than a search for the rules that define it. The nature of being schooled is that once we learn how to do something, too often we stop experimenting, learning, and having fun. We proceed mindlessly. The alternative I’m proposing will soon become evident. Entering into something new, without rules to go by, doesn’t come to us easily. We have been taught to believe that rules will make it easier for us to find our way. In fact, rules often blind us to what we most want to enjoy in creative activity. Most important, worrying too much about learning the rules usually keeps us from ever engaging in that activity in the first place. We worry that we won’t have the talent to learn the rules; we worry that we should already know the rules; and we especially worry that if we don’t know the rules, others will dismiss us. The truth is, we’re often better off not knowing the rules. When we know them, we run the great risk of mindlessly following them, obviating the potential enjoyment and personal growth the activity could otherwise provide. In general, when we’re rule-bound, we mindlessly focus on details and often end up missing the whole. On some occasions we’re so focused on the whole that we’re blind to the details. Both whole and part are worthy of our mindfulness.
A woman once visited Henri Matisse in his studio and, after examining a painting he had just finished, declared to him, “The arm of this woman is much too long.” His reply was quick. “But, madame, you are mistaken. This is not a woman, this is a painting.” How many of us, like that woman, have mindlessly applied the rules only to miss the masterpiece before us? No matter how hard we might try to make it otherwise, if we do take the chance and, say, “paint,” our painting will only be a painting. We will never be able to create a three-dimensional, breathing person on a canvas, so why not paint what we like: two heads, extra long legs, no eyes, whatever we wish? It’s time to learn to do it our own way.
The Essence of Mindfulness
"Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely."
- Auguste Rodin
Before the airport in Provincetown, Massachusetts, was renovated, a large glass wall faced out over the runway. A few years ago, while waiting for a friend to arrive, I asked the person behind the counter when the flight from Boston was expected. She replied that it was on time and should arrive soon. A short while later a plane taxied up to the terminal in full view. I was standing less than two feet from the ticket agent, and there was no one else in the small airport, just the two of us. Was this my friend’s flight? Rather than simply lean over and confirm that the plane right in front of us was the flight I was awaiting, she ritually picked up a microphone and announced the flight’s arrival over the public address system.
We’ve all experienced mindlessness in our lives, those instances when someone’s actions (often our own) are characterized by an entrapment in old categories, automatic behavior, and a lack of awareness of the world at hand. Early in my academic career, I frequently found myself frustrated by the mindless behavior I saw around me. People did not seem to be acting in a way that I thought was sensible. When I moved from New York City to Cambridge, I began to notice things like the lines at the bank. In one line there would be two people, and in others there would be five or more. Why didn’t anyone join the shorter line? Why were smart people not making use of the detailed information available to them? Was I at times acting this way as well? Indeed I was. What I realized, though, was that in a different context our old behavior made sense.
I decided to conduct experiments to assess how mindlessness comes about and how pervasive it might be, and I have been studying it ever since. An important discovery I made was that we teach ourselves to be mindless in two very different ways: through repetition and through a single exposure to a piece of information. The first way is quite familiar. Most of us have had the experience, for example, of getting in the car to drive someplace familiar, like the office, then realizing, as if all of a sudden, that we have arrived. We made a large part of our trip on “automatic pilot,” as we sometimes call mindless behavior. Sometimes we quite deliberately cultivate mindlessness in this way, as when we learn a skill by practicing until it becomes “second nature” to us. It seems sensible to do so. We want to learn the new skill so well that we don’t have to think about it. The problem is that, if we are too successful, it might not occur to us to question the way we are doings things in situations outside the context in which we’ve learned it, even when it would be to our advantage to do so.