“If your subject is your own experience, as long as you have an experience, you have a subject.”
– Sargy Mann, Blind Painter
When I was 12, I fell wildly in love with music. Puberty hit and all my feelings exploded in terrifying technicolor. Music was my only refuge. I found punk and rap, Chopin and Schumann, bluegrass and jazz. I ran home from school every afternoon to pen songs, belt my favorite albums, and raw my fingers on any instrument I could find. I was living out loud for the first time and I couldn’t get enough.
As I work with and mentor other creatives, I realize this is a familiar story. By instinct, accident, or necessity, we hit that intoxicating taproot of humanity: the ability to create something that never existed before us. We weave the ambiguity of the world around us into meaningful narratives, realities, and selves. Whether chef or architect, introvert or extrovert, visually or kinesthetically inclined, creativity flows from that primal need to communicate experience.
When we’re in it, creativity is a being, not a doing. It doesn’t require us to be card carrying musicians or writers or dancers. From the contemplative point of view, creativity is just what is happening right now. It’s the spontaneous, moment-to-moment expression of reality itself. The simple act of perceiving and making sense of our environment is the creative act. Of course, each of us applies our own unique skills, motivations, and practices, but at its core, inspiration is ceaseless and effortless.
In practice though, things get away from us. One day we’re creating in ecstatic flow, fingers flying over keys and the next… we’re stalled on the same white page, cursor blinking and blinking and blinking. We slam the computer in frustration. The clock is ticking and we’re not producinganything. As our careers and goals develop, so do our anxieties about failure and success. The critic creeps in and it just won’t shut up! A dangerous thing has happened: we’ve fallen into an “I-It” relationship with our creativity – a relationship based on utility. This isn’t being creativity anymore – this is doing creativity. And it’s painful work.
That’s where I found myself while deep into my first music project, years out from that punky pre-teen and her messy experiments. My career was a certified hit: I had a record deal, fans, tour dates, and commercial contracts – I’d taken at least two spins around my bucket list already. But something wasn’t right. Every morning I woke in a panic, I flaked out on writing sessions and called in sick to big gigs. Even listening to music made me anxious. Then one day, hiding behind sunglasses on another award-show red carpet, it all finally popped. Amid the interviews and photo ops, I saw my conundrum in nauseating clarity: I was a successful, self-made artist who was utterly alienated from her own creativity. Award in hand and heart heavy, I slinked home into a total creative block.
What had happened? I pried around in my process and found some clues. Hustling for success in a cut-throat industry, I had learned to play all the roles – I was a performer, producer, editor, marketer, and critic. And I was playing all those roles, all the time. Each one clamoring to be heard. Every creative thought was followed by a critical one; “Is this good enough? Is it right? Will peoplelike it?” I had come to judge my creativity by the praise and criticism of others. The margins of error were razor thin and my own spontaneity couldn’t be trusted to get it right.
This kind of disconnection is intimately self-alienating and after watching countless other creatives hit the same wall, it seems ubiquitous. It’s the screenwriter who can’t hear their characters’ voices anymore, the entrepreneur frozen between ventures, the parent sick with worry that their instincts are all wrong. Creativity, like most things, has been commodified: there’s a secret to doing it right and it’s on sale for a limited time. It’s a trait to be acquired, a task to be completed, a thing to be sold. So we give ourselves and our art an ultimatum: “Be exactly like this or you’re done for.” Haunted by the idea of failure, I turned my creativity into a show pony.
Determined to find what creativity really was and where on earth mine had gone, I wandered off to do the only thing I could fathom: meditate. Slowly, about a year into a two-year break from creating, I finally started to crawl out of my conundrum. The first step in reconnecting with my creativity? Relax, watch, and for f*** sakes quit poking it already!
Relaxing with wakeful attention makes space for what is hiding in plain sight: the natural creativity of mind. Each moment of experience is already a complete display of creativity. Everything that prances across the stage of the mind – thoughts, feelings, stories, perceptions, beliefs, images, memories – is totally, artfully unique to the experiencer. Anger curls up in high definition; joy bubbles like a spring; love colors everything you see and it’s all just… happening! To watch the mind spaciously is to have a front row seat to creativity itself. Tales of terror, novellas of heartache, and symphonies of hope show up fully-formed. If we can enter that space without an agenda, we find inspiration, authenticity, and insight enough for a lifetime.
Of course, the mind, like a quasar of spontaneous activity, doesn’t need us to do anything with its ingenious display. Consciousness is always happening. So as creators, seeking to communicate authentically, what can we do with what we find here? The answer is infuriatingly simple: open the door and get out of the way. We can bring the skills of our craft the way a midwife brings towels and water. We stand at the ready, whispering encouragement, and guide the process into form – whatever it may be. When we create like this, from just what’s there – when we speak just what’s there – creating is meaningful and joyful. Our art touches others because it’s true.
Attending to our experience in this way, all of our actions become art. Expressions of pain, bliss, and even confusion flow in the space of awareness and pour from you like a song. This practice of relaxing into the clarity of mind, again and again, was (and continues to be) the path back to myself. What that 12-year-old girl had found, singing through the despair of her first heartbreak and punk-rocking through the rage of adolescence, I rediscovered. I came back to the studio to create without expectation and found a depth of courage and insight I never knew I had.
We are already creative in all the roles we inhabit. We put on our editor hats, go to marketing meetings, we play the popstar, the parent, the politician. But when we relax, watch, and allow, something even more incredible happens: our own spontaneous inner wisdom makes itself known. We offer to it the best of our patience, love, and expertise and suddenly our whole life is art; our whole life is a vital act.
Creativity is happening anyway. Just relax.
*Tasha Schumann is a creator, community-builder, and explorer of the mind. She’s a teacher of meditation and yoga in several traditions, an award-winning recording artist (Tasha the Amazon) and the co-host of the upcoming CEC podcast with Jeff Warren.