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Standing at Water's Edge
Moving Past Fear, Blocks, and Pitfalls to Discover the Power of Creative Immersion
By Anne Paris
New World LibraryCopyright © 2008 Anne Paris
All rights reserved.
The Challenge of Immersion
"... you must dive into the water."
"Alas", said he, "I have never learned to dive."
"There is nothing to learn," said she. "The art of diving is not to do anything new but simply to cease doing something. You have only to let yourself go."
"It is only necessary," said Vertue, with a smile, "to abandon all efforts at self-preservation."
"I think," said John, "that if it is all one, I would rather jump."
"It is not all one," said Mother Kirk. "If you jump, you will be trying to save yourself and you may be hurt. As well, you would not go deep enough. You must dive so that you can go right down to the bottom of the pool: for you are not to come up again on this side. There is a tunnel in the cliff, far beneath the surface of the water, and it is through that tunnel that you must pass so that you may come up on the far side."
— C. S. LEWIS, THE PILGRIM'S REGRESS
In this powerful passage, C.S. Lewis depicts the hope and dread of immersion. Although he was describing the challenge of immersing into spiritual faith, the passage also illustrates the internal challenge of the artist facing the creative process. Artists must delve into the unknown and live with the uncertainty that the creative process requires. But where does creativity come from? And how does an artist find the courage to dive into this unknown territory? Then, even after entry, what sustains an artist's ability to stay in this unknown place to be able to complete a work of art?
In order to answer the second two of these questions, which will ultimately help you along in your creative process, we must first understand where creativity comes from. We must begin with an understanding for what I have come to appreciate as the most fundamental and difficult challenge we face in creativity — fithing. We can experiencneding the courage to enter into a creative state. Once we can acknowledge and respect this, then I can offer ideas about how to navigate through the process.
My fundamental assumption is that creativity (and the hope that is needed to fuel our forward movement) comes from a state of experience that I call immersion. The experience of immersion is one of total connection and engagement. Literally, to immerse means to plunge into something that surrounds or covers. We usually think of immersing into water: an immersed object is completely suspended in liquid but not drowned by it. Immersion means to be totally absorbed or engrossed in an activity.
It feels like simultaneously losing and finding the self. It is the experience of getting past our psychological boundaries and defenses and totally investing our heart and soul into something else. In creative activity, immersion means (in the current phrase) to be "in the zone," similar to being in a meditative trance in that the outside world melts away and new ideas, images, or sounds present themselves in a natural flow. Here, in this place, we experience ourselves in the fullest and most meaningful sense. This is where life exists, where fulfillment, gratification, and depth reside. Immersive moments are felt as soothing and energizing, relaxing and vitalizing.
We can think of immersion with another person, place, idea, or thing. We can experience immersive moments, or states, in a variety of realms. Let me offer a few examples of immersive experiences that generate hope, strength, and ultimately creativity:
A young girl climbs up into her father's lap. She nestles in, big warm armswrapped around her, the smell of sweet cologne lingering in his hours-old beard and the strength of his big, soft body encasing her. As with a warm fire on a cold night, she feels soothed, secure, and connected. She dreams of being a princess or a president. The future abounds with possibilities.
A little boy stands at the sink beside his father. Dad armed with a razor, son holding a toothbrush, both stare into the mirror with tired eyes as they put shaving lotion on their cheeks. The little boy feels big, grown-up, and strengthened by this shared moment. Likewise, the father feels enhanced, gratified, and proud to be of such "use" to his son.
A dancer listens to the music, initially thinking and planning what step will come next. "Will I have the strength and balance to attempt that move I did the other day?" Then, swept away into the motion of the music, she moves and turns without thought. Without a plan but always with a grasp — a hold on the rhythm and the verse — she gets lost in the beauty and finds her own grace.
Wrapped in deep thought and with books piled all around, he gets an inkling of an idea. He stops, paralyzed and afraid to move lest he lose his train of thought. Then, almost magically, the idea builds upon itself, new formulations, and new connections. He'll write them down later — better now to ride this intellectual tide to see where it may take him.
We all long for experiences of immersion. We seek them in many realms: our relationships, our work, our art, our spirituality. There is no denying the powerful and profound sense of meaning and purpose immersive moments provide. Often, we wait for them to happen. When by chance they do, we grab hold of them as precious gems of life — and often we feel sustained and energized by them for long periods afterward.
Of course, we can and do engage in our activities without the experience of immersion. A dancer I know described a profound shift in her feelings about herself when she was in an immersive state during dance compared to when she was not. When she was immersed in dance, she experienced herself as graceful and beautiful. She confidently moved across the floor, feeling enhanced by her movements. However, at other times, when she was not immersed and was, instead, "on the outside of the dance," she experienced herself as inadequate and self-conscious. She compared herself to other dancers, concluding that her body type was "not right." She focused on her technical flaws and found that she would trip herself up by thinking too much about what she was doing. As she alternated between these immersive and nonimmersive states, her self-perception and experience changed completely. Thus, it is not the activity, per se, that generates immersion, but the doer's internal state and engagement that define it.
Immersive moments propel us forward into transformation and change; we are enhanced and strengthened in the connection. From this enhanced state, new forms, conceptions, and thoughts emerge. This is the psychological-spiritual-intuitive edge of the self where creative imagination exists.
It is interesting to consider that the experience of immersion serves a healing and vitalizing function: the artistic product emerging from the immersive experience is itself often not the artist's goal. The experience of immersion can feel like a sense of home. In fact, immersion can be a self-consolidating state, a place to go when we feel worn down or fragile.
I have heard many artists describe their work as a fundamental need. One composer said that he could not go for more than a few days (actually he found ten was his limit) before he just "had to write music." He felt a driving need to express himself. But could it also be that he needed the immersive experience he found during composing to sustain his sense of wholeness, completeness, and vitality? In later chapters, I discuss how the experience of immersion is actually a crucial element in psychological health as well as in the creative process.
Evidence that immersive experience is psychologically sustaining and restorative is reflected in our attempts to schedule and structure its possible occurrence. Attending church services or psychotherapy sessions on a weekly basis can be quite sustaining. Perhaps, too, the idea of a regularly planned date night with one's spouse is a wish for a regular immersive experience.
Yet as wonderful as this immersive experience is, it can also be very frightening to allow it. A strong sense of dread parallels the hopeful promise of immersion. To allow immersion requires taking a leap of faith into uncertainty and vulnerability. Most of us find it frightening to consider taking this leap into the unknown as our trust in others, ourselves, and the world has been chipped away at (or trau-matically obliterated) in the course of life. The sense of abandon — the giving up of reins of control, familiarity, and self-protective defenses — required for these immersive moments can be truly terrifying. There is no guarantee of the outcome. Opening to immersion requires sitting still with uncertainty. Its product and process are unknown. To experience the immersive connection that generates creativity, one must recklessly and without defense dive into the water, letting go of conscious control and manipulation. Our entire being can feel at risk of demolishment. Many of us choose (consciously or unconsciously) not to dive, which protects our vulnerable selves but diminishes our sense of being fully alive and connected.
Immersion can be experienced in most areas of life. I'd like to describe various realms of possible immersive experience to help you get the feel for how central this idea is to our day-to-day functioning. And beyond the general interest of viewing parts of our lives through a new lens, later I describe how you can also use your immersive experiences in these other realms to help you along in the creative process.
A famous photographer spoke of her inner shift, from control to immersion, in her approach to taking pictures. She described her early career in photography as consisting of the hard work of "making pictures." She put a lot of energy into finding and creating the perfect shot. Then she came to rely on and trust the process of immersion; she began "waiting for the pictures to present themselves to her." This approach, albeit much more uncertain and out of her control, freed her artistic energy, and she began discovering many more gripping scenes.
Many artists have reported that they will often have immersive moments, giving rise to creative ideas, in that state between wake-fulness and sleep. Perhaps this is understandable, because in that space, a person's psychological defenses are down. The mind is less inhibited by fear and, as it enters the sleep and dream world, is more relaxed and open. Many artists report keeping a pen and paper bedside in order to record these ideas so that they are not covered over again by conscious control.
One distinction worth mentioning here is that between creating audience-driven art, or making something prescribed by audience demand, and creating something new from the inside. Rollo May, a psychologist who has written extensively about creativity, also looked to the inner experience of the artist to define true creativity. In his book The Courage to Create he distinguished "genuine creativity" from "escapist creativity." He understood genuine creativity as involving an act of encounter, an idea similar to that of immersion. He defined encounter as an inner experience of intensity, absorption, and engagement. On the other hand, he writes, "escapist creativity is that which lacks encounter"; it is performed for purposes other than self-reintegration or "engagement in encounter." Creating only for purposes of wealth, fame, or recognition can lack the experiential component of encounter which propels new forms of self-integration to emerge.
Everyone agrees that making art involves self-expression. However, I suggest that genuine creativity involves much more. It involves the artist immersing in the art form, which then invites the audience into that immersive space. Creativity reaches for connection. This ability of the artist to create an immersive experience with her audience is what defines a gripping work of art. Talented artists have a way of inviting others into their immersive realm. Picasso described his experience of painting:
A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one's thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day. This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.
In fact, another way to experience immersion is by appreciating someone else's art. I believe that it is the hope for an immersive experience that leads us to art galleries, concerts, and bookstores. Listening to music, looking at a painting or photograph, watching a ballet, or reading a book can be a vitalizing, strengthening, and transformative experience. Carl Rotenberg referred to this immersive experience as a "shared experiential space" between the viewer and the artist. We feel that the artist has expressed what we needed to express, that the artist has put into form what we experience and imagine. In my words, we feel immersed with the artist and immersed with the artwork. Another description of this experience comes from Gaston Bachelard in Poetics of Space, describing his experience reading poetry:
The image offered us by reading the poem now becomes really our own. It takes root in us. It has been given to us by another, but we begin to have the impression that we could have created it, that we should have created it. It becomes a new being in our language, expressing us by making us what it expresses; in other words, it is at once a becoming of expression and a becoming of our being.
When we immerse in someone else's art, we find our own creativity. This immersive experience inspires us to be creative in our own way. I experience this when listening to certain music. I am swept up in it: I notice my heart beating faster, a flurry of energy and anticipation building inside of me, and a desire swelling to make my own art. I am a dancer, and in these immersive moments I either fantasize dancing or actually get up and spontaneously choreograph a dance. Interestingly, I also find that listening to music and dancing mobilizes my creativity in academic and intimacy realms. I have often come up with new intellectual ideas while dancing, as well as feeling more connected with my loved ones.
Most people seem to recognize this phenomenon, at least at some level. Many artists describe a need to "feed" on others' art when they feel their own creative energy lacking. In order to sustain their own creative process, they need to find immersive moments offered through the art of another. Later, I develop this idea even further by describing how finding alternative immersive experiences is necessary to sustaining our own creative productivity.
The experience of new love epitomizes immersion in the realm of intimate relationships. When couples first fall in love, they tend to swim in immersive states together. There is often a profound sense of connection; they feel fulfilled in a lifelong desire to be completely understood and held. People describe the bliss of finding their soul mate, a person they feel totally connected with and almost as one with. There is usually complete trust in this space. People can be quite creative and productive during this time, as they feel enhanced and their hope for the future is bright. It is an energizing time, full of immersive experiences, which most people anticipate and recall as the best life has to offer.
This high usually moderates over time as reality and individual differences crack the immersive bubble. Perhaps the biggest challenge that couples face over time is sustaining immersive moments with each other. Although it is difficult to replicate the intensity of first-love immersion, couples often find a deeper and more firmly grounded sense of immersive experience with each other. These immersive states are experienced through mutual empathy, shared life experiences, and shared emotional moments.
Sexual intimacy is also a powerful immersive experience. Through sexual intimacy, people feel totally engrossed, engulfed in one another, as one. Of course, emotional intimacy can enhance sexual immersion and vice versa.
Many people are frightened of emotional intimacy and turn to sexual intimacy for their sense of immersion with their partner. Sex becomes a crucial element in their sense of connectedness. Without sexual immersion, these people tend to feel isolated and alone. When the fear of emotional intimacy is extreme, sexual addictions can develop. These people are desperate for experiences of immersion, and they turn to frequent casual sexual encounters or other sexual activities to temporarily get their fix of immersion.
Likewise, some people are afraid of immersing sexually. Sexual dysfunctions, lack of sexual desire, and sexual inhibitions are often symptoms of the deeper fear of being vulnerable and hurt if immersion is allowed. In general, people are in search of immersive experiences with each other. However, many people do not feel safe enough or trusting enough to allow this level of vulnerability and uncertainty. There are no guarantees in love, and many people are too frightened to let down their self-protective shields to allow immersion with another and will compensate for this lack of experience through a variety of efforts.
Excerpted from Standing at Water's Edge by Anne Paris. Copyright © 2008 Anne Paris. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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