Category Archives: creativity

Open your channel of creativity

When I began a daily practice of meditation in my early thirties, I was frustrated creatively. I had a novel in my head but I would write the same first twenty pages over and over again. My inner critics were bearing down on me with such vigilance that it felt impossible to get a word in edgewise.

After a couple of weeks of incorporating meditation into my life, I woke up one morning with a vivid dream that gave me my novel full blown. All I had to do was sit down and write it. And reader, I did! The inner critics must have been overwhelmed by the flow and were flushed away! Hooray! Six weeks later I had over three hundred pages of my first draft. For two hours every morning in my bedroom while my children were in nursery school I typed out two more drafts on my IBM Selectric that had replaced my dear old Underwood, and within nine months I had a novel. (That remains in ‘the drawer’ to this very day but that’s another story!)

I felt like my meditation practice cleared a wide column in the center of my being, allowing creative expression to rise up without blockage.

Why does meditation open the creative channel?
I can only speak to my own experience in writing and painting. But it makes sense when you think about how through the regular practice of meditation we begin to notice the harsh inner critics that rattle around in our thoughts constantly spouting cruel opinions about us. How likely are we to subject ourselves to such bad feelings by doing something creative? Why not avoid the whole thing? And yet there is this flicker of an eternal flame inside each of us that is ready to radiate, if only it were given even a little oxygen, a little kindness, a little encouragement. The creative impulse takes many different forms, not just in the arts. It’s where we feel truly alive and engaged in the process of creation, whether it’s an equation, a poem or a mural.

Without meditation to reveal what’s going on, we may assume that we are afraid of what other people might think. But it’s the inner critics that keep us from doing creative things. If we spend time with them in a compassionate way, we may begin to see where they come from. We might recognize what person who had a great deal of influence on us when we were young has been internalized and given power to keep us from living a full and meaningful life.

If you have a meditation practice, in the few minutes after you finish and your mind is clearer and kinder, throw out a question like “Why am I so resistant to ____________ (fill in your creative pursuit)?” (If you don’t have a practice, try it anyway after a quiet time with no distractions.)

Relax, look around, maybe yawn and rest — eyes open or shut, it doesn’t matter. Don’t search for answers. Just be open and easy. By asking the question, you are activating your own inner wisdom which has just been waiting to be asked. So notice answers as they arise. They come in many forms: visual or aural memories, some object you never noticed before, a book jumping off the shelf, the impulse to talk to a certain friend or family member.

I just happened to pose a question years ago around a problem I had, asking “Why am I so screwed up about ______?” I did not expect an answer, I was just in that state of quandary, and it may have been commentary, but I did pose it as a question. Then I just happen to lie there doing nothing, those last few precious moments before I make myself get out of bed, and much to my surprise within five minutes three different images came up for me out of the blue. Images of people and places I’d almost forgotten, words said to me that were cruel by people whose opinions mattered to me. At the time. And those three long-forgotten comments had been shaping my relationship to what I was ‘so screwed up about’! Wow! I had not thought about those people, and certainly not those words, in decades, but deep inside they were as fresh and wounding as if they were still being said.

And they were. Because I had internalized them. Those words were the daggers I used to make myself miserable. Exposed to the light of day by a simple question years later, I could see what had happened and how I had given away my power. And I said to myself “Why would I give those people so much power? They were clueless, troubled and unskillful. They didn’t know what they were doing, and even if they did, it had nothing to do with me.”

A big shift happen in my relationship to what I had been pondering. I managed to defang the viper that had sabotaged my ability to enjoy that part of my life! This is the power of insight meditation. It is not an escape from the daily grind, though it can be very pleasant. It empowers us to see clearly and to have compassion, to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience, even the ones so deeply hidden we hadn’t even known they were there. And it works especially well in relationship to creativity because, let’s face it, there were so many people when we were young — parents, teachers, classmates, the culture at large — telling us we couldn’t do it, that we weren’t doing it right, or asking who did we think we were to even try?

Suggestions for opening your creative channel

  • If your creative impulses get thwarted by inner scoffing and ridicule, up your meditation game. Meditate every morning to open the wide wondrous channel of your own creative expression.
  • Find your creative sangha. I bet you can find courses at a local community college or adult ed program where you will meet like-minded people with whom you can share the joy of creativity. It can feel silly on your own to buy art supplies and set up an easel in your home, but joining a class is empowering, and finding the friendship and encouragement of others who are also trying something new is very comforting. (I have a painting group I continue to meet with even though I haven’t painted in fifteen years. We meet every few months, share our creative efforts (I share my poetry) and enjoy each other’s company. For writing poetry, I belong to an ongoing poetry group where we are challenged but also feel safe in writing and sharing.)
  • Just before beginning writing or painting or whatever creative project you are working on, give yourself a moment of meditation focus, grounding, centering, letting go of the hyper-critical self-doubt and scolding that hampers the free flow of your imagination.
  • When you are not actively creating, stay alert to thought-threads and wisps of dreams that arise that might want to be expressed. Carry, and keep by your bedside, something to jot notes or sketches.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Creativity is process. The product is a byproduct of that process and focusing on that byproduct is counterproductive. It is infinitely more joyful to activate a creative field of expansive celebratory exploration, rather than keeping your eye on the supposed prize. There is no prize but this very experience right here and now. Focusing on the end result sabotages the end result because it limits the possibilities, disturbs the flow and sets you up for disappointment when what you had imagined and what you have created don’t match, leaving you unhappy, but also blind to what is actually there.
  • Stay attuned to the creative flow and notice when it’s not ‘sparking joy’. Pause, walk away, refresh, renew, and then revisit when you feel ready.
  • Remember that you are in collaboration with some synergistic serendipitous field of energy. Sounds woo woo until you’re in it, and synchronicity provides exactly what you need when you need it. That’s being in the flow, whether you’re working on a creative project or just living.
  • The project is done when it satisfies some sense of wholeness, some intrinsic ‘yes!’ Not because you think it’s what the market wants or your teacher or friends like it, but because it satisfies something in you.

In my experience there are four clearly delineated stages of creativity that suffer when they overlap. I will use writing as my creative example, but it could just as well be used in other kinds of creative endeavors.


  • Stage 1: Open
    You have a thought, a dream, a phrase, an impulse — the stirrings of creativity arising. You might jot down a little something or keep toying with the words in your head, or it may arrive full blown and you can write it out. But if you sit down to write before the stirrings have inspired something, it may take a while to get to the heart of the matter, or you might never get there because the writing process without the stirrings can be laden with complicated self-talk.
  • Stage 2: Write
    When you are ready simply pour the words onto the page. Don’t hold back, don’t overthink, don’t edit. Just breathe life into the experience with the senses and specifics. If something needs researching, just make a note in the margin “RESEARCH:______________” Don’t look anything up right now or your attention will be stolen by the internet gremlins.
  • Stage 3: Edit
    Editing use a very different set of tools than writing. Trying to use them both at the same time stops the flow and gums up the works. Give your piece a little cooling off period before revisiting with an eye to where it comes alive, what contributes and what dulls it down. Then edit with fresh eyes. You might hang the piece somewhere you will see it often, and it will stay alive and reveal what may need to happen.
  • Stage 4: Share 
    Showing your work to others is a completely separate stage. Thinking about sharing it during the other stages will thwart the process. Sharing the work out loud or in print with others is both illuminating for the writer and the listener/reader. But the writer is not obligated to share, and except for reading well and providing a satisfying print environment for the piece, the writer’s work is done. The reader’s creative engagement and what they do with it is their own experience.

So there are a few ideas to use to stir up your inner creative impulse. Enjoy! But remember it all starts with a daily practice of meditation so the channel of creativity can open fully.

Making room for your own inner wisdom

My primary interest has always been in helping people access their own inner wisdom. The regular practice of meditation — sensing in, following the breath — creates space for that inner wisdom to be heard, but it’s helpful to actively invite it in. So this week I initiated a variation on our class format, incorporating a post-meditation free-write session.

Instead of taking a five minute break for silent walking or communing with nature, we spent 25 minutes, notebooks in hand. I was available for anyone who needed me, but everyone seemed to take quite naturally to this new addition. It was such a pleasure to see them all having their quiet alone time out in the garden, gazing at a tree, the waterfall or the mountain, and then finding a comfortable private spot to sit in the sun or shade to write down a few inspiring words from their own experience.

Back inside in our circle, we slowly transitioned into discussion. The pleasure in silence was palpable, but eventually each student felt like sharing her writing or a comment on how the experience was for her. Their words confirmed that this was the right change to have made in the class format.

One student spent time deeply looking at certain elements in the garden – a particular plant, a tree, the waterfall, and then wrote down attributes of each. I have no doubt that her inner wisdom was actively highlighting the very attributes within herself that would be most helpful at this time.

Another student was able to see options to her standard line of thinking. Meditation creates a sense of spaciousness so we are not stuck in a linear mode, but can recognize more subtle offerings that bring a different slant or a new insight.

Two students were able to gain new creative clarity on what’s up for them: for one a business plan, for the other a solution to a challenge in her living space. Lots of creative thinking!

While wise words from sages through the ages may resonate and have meaning for us right now, the wisdom that rises from within ourselves when we really listen in is exactly what we most need to know in this moment. This only works if we have learned to cultivate a spacious inner quiet, to distinguish loving wisdom from the fear-based cacophony of judgments, opinions, memories, plans and attitudes that tend to fill our thoughts throughout the day.

If you have a regular meditation practice, consider adding a little extra time at the end for this kind of spacious creativity. If you meditate when you first wake up in the morning, as I do, you might be eager for that first cup of tea or coffee. No problem! Just make it part of your silent retreat mode, brewing it with a sense of ritual and really being present to the feel of it in your hands. Likewise with your morning wash-up, dressing, walking the dog. Extend your practice of mindfulness into the day. Why would you stop being mindful?

And if there is time to commune with nature, to pose yourself a timely and intriguing question, to make jot down notes in your journal, then that too is a wise extension of practice.

To tell the truth, we lie all the time

When I was eleven and just moved to San Francisco, for some reason I began making stuff up. In a class with three sets of twins, I fabricated a twin of my own named Catherine who lived in Cleveland with my grandmother because ‘we didn’t get along’.  I told my closest friend, who was also new that year, that the shower in our bathroom was a fern grotto with moss and a little cascade. Admittedly that shower was dark, enclosed and who knows what could have grown in there had my mother not stayed on top of it, but a fern grotto? My friend was mightily disappointed on that first visit to my home, but I guess she forgave me because we’re still friends almost sixty years later.

So I come to the virtue of Truthfulness with curiosity. Would we have children not fabricate tall tales for the amusement of others?



Cover of soon to be published book. See below for more info.

Which brings to mind the book my husband, the artist Will Noble, has just finished illustrating. It’s a true celebration of imagination, based on the lyrics of the Peter, Paul and Mary song ‘Autumn to May’. (Ordering info, if interested.)

One of my meditation students is involved in the theater, where she says ‘truth’ is not about being factual, as the whole play is usually the product of imagination, but about being true to the play and staying in character. Certainly in painting or poetry, the two art forms I am most familiar with, the painting or poem requires being true to it, honoring it, not suddenly breaking out into some other kind of painting or poem. The art dictates the core truth so that every aspect is enhancing the integrated whole. But this has nothing to do with factual truth, does it? There’s a deeper truth that is revealed when we stay true to the art.

Truth in Politics
But lets get back to factual truth. In this highly charged political season, there seems to be a dearth of it. Perhaps you remember comedian Stephen Colbert’s infamous ‘truthiness’ where political doublespeak sounds true, but isn’t. It puts us on notice that there are a lot of ways of thinking about things and talking about things that conveniently skirt issues and sound true enough, but upon closer examination are revealed to be false.

We can complain about it, sure, but it’s more useful to notice how we are inclined to readily believe ‘facts’ that support our preexisting position, and how we may quickly reject fact-based ‘lies’ when they don’t. We are also more likely to believe something to be true when it comes from someone we want to believe, perhaps someone who looks like us or shares our values. With news sources offering more editorial opinion than researched facts and information flowing so freely on the internet, discerning the factual truth becomes increasingly difficult. But it is up to each of us to make the effort to find the truth, and to not be attached to rigid positions. Question everything!

Being Honest with Friends and Family
On an interpersonal level, most of us adults have found it is just too much of a hassle to keep track of lies. So we are as honest as we can be, and when it would be hurtful to say what we think, we don’t lie, we just stay silent. And that’s skillful. The Buddha’s teaching of Wise Speech asks us to think before we speak, and then only say what is true, kind and timely.

How does that play out in real life? In class students offered two situations for us to examine:

First up, what do you do when you were invited to something you didn’t want to attend, gave an elaborate excuse and get caught out later in the lie. How could that have been handled better? Well, keep it simple! We don’t need to make an excuse or tell a tale. ‘I’m not available.’ is sufficient, but if pressed ‘That’s not my thing.’ or ‘I’m not up for that.’ also work. We don’t need reasons. If it’s a person we would like to spend time with, we can come up with an alternative type of activity that is more our thing. If not, then a simple, ‘I hope you enjoy it.’ is sufficient.

The second situation was brought up by the student who works in theater. She wondered how to be honest with an actor after a not-so-great performance. For the answer to this, I turned to Toastmasters excellent format for evaluating other members’ speeches. First, while watching the performance, regardless of how bad it is, find something praiseworthy, and then be sure to praise that. Right after a performance, that’s enough. But later, if the actor actually requests your full opinion, or if it is your job to give them an evaluation, you can use what we call the ‘Toastmaster sandwich’, beginning with something they did well and ending with something else they did well. In the middle give the meat of what they might consider doing differently next time to be more effective. But again, only if they request your opinion.

Sometimes we think we are being kind by lying to each other, but upon further reflection it just creates misunderstandings and confusion. Others of us feel compelled to tell the ‘truth’ regardless of how hurtful it may be. I put truth in quotes because it is often just a personal opinion. Finding our way in this is never easy, but again, if we pause to reflect whether what we are about to say is true, kind and timely, we have a better chance of maintaining strong, respectful and caring relationships.

I’m sure you can think of other challenging situations we can look at together. Please comment below and get the conversation started!

The Biggest Lies We Tell All the Time
Where we are likely to be lying more often than not is to ourselves! Our thoughts rattle around saying the same old thing over and over and we believe them without question and let them guide our behavior. In our next class we will be exploring this aspect of Truthfulness. Stay tuned!

At the Push of a Button

When someone pushes our buttons and we react in our habitual ways, it’s uncomfortable and disconcerting perhaps, but it’s also an opportunity for an adventure in self-discovery.

A few weeks ago in the lesson titled ‘Taking Refuge, Taking Root’ I used the analogy of a plant rooting, and I talked about how we might contract around a hard rock, believing it to be solid ground and how we need to let our roots flourish and expand in the rich soil in order to ensure healthy growth for the plant of our being.

So what is the rock in this analogy? What is this hard thing that we contract around, that we cling to, believing it to be the ground that will support us? It is our identity, our solid separate sense of self that we hold onto as if it is the source of life, without which we would disappear.

We will not disappear if we loosen our tight hold on this rock of identity. But when we begin to see that it is just a rock and not the ground itself, we can release our grip on that hard contracted sense of self, that collection of ideas about who we are. This awareness that there is a rock, that there is a holding tight, a contracting around our sense of identity is in itself a hard truth to grasp. If we are not our thoughts, our beliefs, our personality, our way of being in the world, our skills, our traits, our strengths and our weaknesses – all these things we have learned about ourselves over the years – then who the heck are we?

With our tight grasp around the rock of identity, we are too contracted to consider the possibility that we are not who we believe ourselves to be. It’s just too scary. It’s just another threat that makes us feel we will disappear.

We all know these perceived threats that seem to be the cause of all our pain by making us contract even further. We are familiar with them, whether we acknowledge them or not. I’ve come upon a collection of early poems from my twenties, and in between all the love poems there are poems that clearly speak to an awareness of these threats.

POEM: At the Door

Let them all come in
Open the door gently
so they won’t fall on their faces
but let them all come in
Careful now, don’t crush the hand
that seeps under the door sill
Don’t stab too hard
the key into the hole
through which an eye’s been
watching waiting
Yes, let them all come in
I’m just too tired to listen
to their scratching and their whining
I want to see their faces
and be done with them

– Stephanie Noble, Fall 1976

In this poem I am clearly in a state of exhaustion from fighting with these threats and I just want to get it over with, to stop locking the door against whatever it is that so desperately wants in. Sometimes we arrive at the door of our awakening with just that state of exhaustion after all other avenues of escape have been tried. Other times we rush to open the door because wherever we are is so excruciatingly painful that we finally have no choice but to see what’s behind the door of the unknown we had previously resisted.

In the second poem, written soon after the first, you can see it is in fact two poems in one. Read through the whole poem first, then reread only the words in bold. Because at the time I only had a typewriter to work with, I used a colored pencil to highlight the words of the poem inside the poem. (In the printed version the poem is justified into a block of type but I couldn’t achieve that here.)

POEM: Calling Card

I recognize its calling card
but shut the door I know
its voice but not its name
I say I am not yet ready for
the peace pipe pale light
waiting & shut the door. It
calls out wanting compromise
& Trust when I know if I let it
in for tea it would steal
me away. Even as we chat
it would pocket my tongue
leaving me there with
no way to call for help No
that door must not Be opened
though There is no end to its
knocking, though I must Live
always with Knowing that the
day no doubt will come when
the door shall come unhinged
and all my choices are gone

– Stephanie Noble, Fall 1976

In this second poem there is still the sense of the perceived threat but there is also the full awareness that what is waiting outside the door is not just the rambunctious scratching aspects of perceived identity that need to be faced, but also the patient inner wisdom that is always there ready to be heard when we are ready to listen.

When we open to the creative process, we often find a way of exploring concepts that might otherwise be threatening. So whatever utensils for creativity call to you – a paint brush, a pen, a pair of scissors and a stack of magazines, remembering and recording dreams or any other creative means, allow yourself to pick it up and use it as a means of self-exploration. Let go of any idea that it needs to be ‘good.’ We are not talking about products to be marketed but about the means to allow our inner wisdom to communicate with us.

Clearly, these two poems are both ways for my inner wisdom to tell me it was time to open to whatever was on the other side of that door, and I began meditating not too longer after these were written. I’m glad that I wrote the poems down, and even collected them and kept them, though I just recently found this notebook of collected early poetry, long buried.

We all have ways in which our inner wisdom speaks to us, but we don’t always listen, and if we hear it we don’t always believe it. Even if we believe it we might not remember it when we most need it. Making note through the creative process in whatever form it takes is a way of formalizing our relationship with our inner wisdom. We might not know what it is telling us but we are heeding its call, and we then have a way of living with the record, letting ourselves wonder about it, letting it inspire us to further exploration.

Unless of course we get all caught up in turning our art into currency to make us feel safe in the world, thinking it represents us. It doesn’t! Our inner wisdom speaks through us in this way, and we are free to share our art with others because it is universal in nature. But it is very easy to contract around our art and compress it further into the rock of our identity, so that instead of allowing it to have its relationship with others, to reach them if they are open to it, we believe our art to be our face in the world, and we suffer in our sense of self if people don’t respond to it in the way we hope they will. Sometimes artists contract around their art identity and lose touch with the inner wisdom that sparked its creation originally. Instead of listening to their inner wisdom, they listen to ‘the market.’ This is a loss for the artist and the viewer, reader or listener because there is no deep connection, only an uncomfortable agreement to stay on the surface of things, ignoring the loud knocking and scratching sounds coming from ‘the door.’

Do you have a felt sense of what or who threatens your tightly held perception of personal identity? For most of us it is made much clearer at the moments when someone or something ‘pushes our buttons’ by making us feel unsafe — unloved, invisible, disrespected or unworthy, even if that was not their intention. As painful as they are, these moments are potentially gifts for inner exploration. As we develop the ability to be present with experiences and the emotions they evoke, we can begin to use skillful inquiry and insightful noticing. Buddhist meditative practice invites us to be present with what is, and sometimes purposely evoking strong emotion in order to bring up the strong sense of the false identity, the illusion of a separate self.

Our body is our greatest instructor in this. We can feel intense emotions in our body. In the way it holds tension, pain and illness our bodies can give us insights into what residue from the past we are compressing into that rock of false identity.

Sitting in meditation or simply in a quiet moment, we can access a specific bodily sensation. Resting our attention there, we first let go of any desire to change it, to make it better, to make it go away. This is an opportunity to learn something. Why would we rush past it, even if it’s painful? We sit with our pain because it holds the key to our ability to awaken and grow to the fullness of our being.

First we can simply be with the emotion, noticing where we feel it in our body, then we focus on the physical sensation, noticing what images and emotions arise through this open curious attention. We might ask a question, “Why do I feel this way?” We may hear the words of a parent or teacher scolding us. We may see a scene from our youth. These are actually associated with the pain. They are the clues to how we learned to identify ourselves in this way.

These are moments in our young lives where we believed what someone else told us about ourselves or about the world without taking into account their own human frailties, fallibilities and fears. Now as adults who don’t believe everything we hear from every source, we can be present with them again and we can see them more clearly. We can see how an exhausted and perhaps frustrated young mother gave us messages that spoke more of her feelings about herself than about us. We can see how a young lover’s betrayal tattooed us with a sense of being unlovable or unattractive when he or she was simply steeped in misery that had nothing to do with us. Seeing this, we don’t need to turn on ourselves for having been gullible. We were young! We were learning about the world and ourselves from every source available. We had no way to discern whether a source was valid, whether what we heard was true or not. Horrible things are said in moments of anger, in moments of intoxication that were false but felt true to us at the time, and we took these things in and we fabricated our identity around them and now it is the rock that we cling to full of both the things we like to believe about ourselves and the things we are ashamed of. We all have this! And, as was mentioned by one of the students in class, it is really valuable to realize that horrible things, untrue but hurtful and believed to be true at the time things, have been said to us all. And while part of what we can do is to be conscious enough to not say such things to others, especially to children who will take it so to heart, the other part is to become conscious enough to see how much of what we hold to be us is really just this rock we are clinging to, believing it to be us.

These insights may give us great ‘aha’ moments where we begin to understand how we contracted around that hard rock of identity. The story revealed may be very compelling. We may fall a bit in love with it and we run the risk of wrapping our roots tight around it as well, recognizing all the ways we have been wronged, and getting into an orgy of naming and blaming rather than moving through the story to the clarity of the message that ‘We are not this.’ Having found we are not this, we may simply fall into the belief that “We are that.’ still seeing the identity thus created as solid. Sometimes we just apply whitewash through positive thinking. We tell ourselves we are good when we had thought ourselves bad. Thus we are still stuck clinging to the rock.

So we need to be aware that these discoveries are not the end of the exploration. We take these new found associative images and insights and pursue a form of inquiry. We take the horrible thing that was said to us, that we have held tight within us all these years, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true?’ No matter how much power we vested it with at the time, we now see that the source of our belief about who we are has nothing to do with us. The source, whether a parent, teacher or playmate, was unreliable. He or she was operating without true knowledge or understanding, with no clairvoyance and certainly only temporal power over us. We have the power to reparent ourselves, not to weave a new tale of who we are, but to hold ourselves with great compassion and strength to be present with all of these stories and see them for what they are.

This is a huge breakthrough! Because we have just begun to see the contraction and the clinging roots as unnecessary. Now we have the opportunity to release into the rich soil of being and grow in ways we have never allowed ourselves to do before.

So when in a relationship someone pushes our buttons and we sense our habituated patterns of reactivity arising, we have a choice. We can follow our habituated patterns mindlessly, letting them take us on a wild painful ride — lashing out in anger or retreating in self-pity, for example — or we can say ‘Thank you for providing such a rich dharma lesson!’ Well we don’t have to say it out loud, but we could! And then we can give ourselves some time to be present with the pain, to feel it in the body, to notice associative images and emotional memories, and to do exploratory inquiry.

This is the opportunity that we are offered again and again, at the push of a button.

Meditation: Beyond the Toggle Switch

Sometimes meditators fall asleep, not because they are tired but because the mind sometimes thinks all it has is a toggle switch, either on or off, awake or asleep. The idea of being fully awake and fully present with the eyes closed may make no sense to the mind at first, and as we know habitual behavior dies hard, so even experienced meditators may have resistance to exploring further.

Of course, you can meditate with the eyes open and in Zen Buddhism meditators are trained to have eyes open with a downward unfocused gaze. But even with our eyes closed, we can train our minds to start noticing all the subtle states possible besides simply being awake or asleep.

Yes, this training can be challenging. It is like learning how to be a wine connoisseur when you have no idea why anyone would want to do all that seemingly pretentious sniffing, swirling, sipping, and swishing. As meditators we have the potential to develop the same kind of subtle noticing that the true wine connoisseur is experiencing. And if you have taken the time out of your busy day to sit, you might as well savor it!

The meditation version of sniffing, swirling or sipping is to savor the present moment, creating an open, receptive field of awareness, then noticing what arises – thoughts, emotions, sensations – and opening to whatever is present in our experience with as much compassion and non-judgment as we can manage. Sometimes, especially at first, we may be overwhelmed by the thought or emotion and get lost in it. But at some point we notice we are lost, and then we compassionately set our intention to be present again.

If this whole process eludes you because you fall asleep, then you can give yourself practice in small bits at various times of the day when you know you will not fall asleep. When you are in a waiting room, for example. Close your eyes and simply notice what is. Notice sensation inside your body, notice sounds around you, notice where your energy is, notice any emotions arising, perhaps restlessness and impatience at having to wait. Whatever comes up in this brief little exploration is simply exercise, training the mind to discern the subtleties of experience beyond the on and off of the toggle switch.

Now the concept of a toggle switch has application beyond learning to meditate without falling asleep. When we check out when it comes to bodily sensation rather than sense in, we miss out on vital information, the body’s wealth of wisdom, that can give us guidance in our lives. For example, when we have an important decision to make, our ability to notice if our jaw clenches or our stomach gets queasy at one choice and our heart gladdens and our shoulders lighten at another, allows us to make the right decision with greater ease and better results. Even a decision that looks good on paper can be the wrong decision if our body response is negative. We may find that we sabotage the choice taken because it ‘made sense’ instead of a choice that our senses agreed with. And when we follow the paper trail choice we often cause suffering to ourselves and others. We want to make choices in life that sing clearly throughout our whole body, whole hearted choices that help us thrive.

You may well ask why does the body often have a different take on things than our brains? Our bodies are freed from the concerns about what we think we should do, what others around us would think if we did this, any sense of obligation or guilt, any sense of numbness out of habit. Of course, the body has its own issues, hormones for example, and it isn’t familiar with the law (though it usually is intuitively ethical), so we need to be aware and take that into consideration. We’re not throwing logic or common sense out the window!

For some people this sensing in to the body is difficult. In our culture this ‘touchy-feely’ stuff has been actively discouraged and effectively trained out of us. In this conditioned state, we stay in our heads and steer clear of our senses. The minute we register a hint of pain, the toggle switch in our brain sets off a mental pattern that courses through, pushing panic buttons that say things like, “Oh pain, I hate pain, I remember what pain is, why is this happening to me? How long will this go on? How can I get rid of this pain?” All this happens instantaneously. The very idea of slowing down to sniff, swirl or sip the experience, to sense into the pain seems ludicrous. Instead of checking in with the body, we are conditioned to simply check out. Thus we have incredibly busy brains struggling to find formulaic solutions to problems that the body could help us solve in a moment of sensing in.

Through meditation we relearn the natural skill of sensing in to the body that we have been conditioned to ignore. We may notice that this sensation, previously labeled pain and filed away, is not just one thing, one terrifying concept, but a whole symphony of changing sensations. In this way, we allow ourselves to slow down and learn the language of the body beyond the toggle switch.

When we can’t sense into our bodies in this way, when we shut down when pain hits and go on automatic pilot mode, we are trapped in a tight cage of fear that creates incredible suffering, what in Buddhism is called dukkha. (See January posts on the First Noble Truth.) Shutting down might seem like a good response, a way of self-medicating for the duration. But what about chronic pain? Must we be numbed out forever?

And something else to consider is that when we use this shut down response for pain, we also unfortunately cannot truly experience physical pleasure, because we shut down our ability to be fully sensate in all forms. When the mind is trained to shut down at sensory overload, it doesn’t distinguish pain from pleasure, it is all sensation.

One benefit not much mentioned about meditation is the increasing ability to fully enjoy the sensory pleasures of the body. In the first place, our minds are fully present to enjoy it. We are not making to do lists but fully experiencing the sensation. But also, by intentionally listening in and honoring the body’s wisdom, we avail ourselves of being more intensely aware of every subtle nuance of pleasurable sensation. Sounds good? Meditate regularly!

Now this is not a cult of the body, nor about seeking out pleasure. It is just acknowledging that the body has some wisdom the mind on its own can miss, caught up as it is in synapse patterns of fear. By practicing awareness of the body’s response to our experience and our thoughts, we develop useful tools for coping with the challenges of life. By getting beyond the toggle switch, we see much more clearly all the subtle layers of life.

We have been studying creativity for a number of weeks now, and this idea of the toggle switch has application here as well. Fully inhabiting our bodies allows our creative expression to rise out of felt experience. We can allow the body’s wisdom to help us in choosing a color or a word. We can notice when we are tightening up out of fear, and we can either allow that noticing to be the basis for a creative exploration, sensing in further, asking some questions, noticing associations, or we can offer ourselves some relaxation techniques. Either way we have insight.

In the arts we often explore painful material. Last week I found myself writing a poem about scattering my mothers ashes. When it came time to read the poem in class, I had to turn it over to a classmate to finish, because I was so overcome with tears. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to access the experience. Staying in touch with the bodily sensations, I was able to weather the storm of emotion it brought forth without getting lost in it. Even being able to savor it, the bitter sweetness of still missing my mother, and being able to let it go as it passed.

Tapping into the wisdom of the bodily sensations is a rich way of beginning any creative session. Allowing ourselves to really notice what arises, the sensations that come up in response to the thoughts and emotions that stream through. Sensing in, and allowing that process to inform our decisions and our explorations enriches the whole process of creating and of fully living our lives, beyond the limitations of the toggle switch.

Meditation & Creativity: Process vs. Product

We have been talking about creativity and the challenges to getting into a free flowing creative mode. We are exploring the subject from various angles that have some overlap because different people resonate to different approaches.

Last week we talked about shifting from a limited exhaustable (and exhausting!) finite source into accessing the infinite, the bottomless spring of universal creative energy.

This week we will focus on another shift we need to make if we are to embrace and sustain creative life. The challenge here is to see ourselves and our creativity more clearly, because the myopic view prescribed by our culture gets in the way of being able to step into the flow of true creativity.

Prescribed by our culture? Yes. I spent a decade in advertising writing prescriptions, and I saw how advertising, with the goal of getting us to buy something, very effectively convinces us that we are somehow lacking. Since advertising is all around us, we have grown up under the collective cloud of believing that we are in need of improvement, that we are products ourselves.

We may be following a spiritual path with the hope of self-improvement, striving to get to the point where we can say, “There, now I can be happy with who I am.”

Even as we recognize the crazy fallacy of this idea, we don’t know how to opt out of it because we are so deeply habituated to believing we are lacking. We strive to gain self-acceptance, to weed out this faulty belief that we are a self-improvement project, only to find that we are even more deeply entrenched. It’s like one of those Chinese woven finger puzzles where the more you try to pull, the tighter it holds onto your fingers. Because pulling, the obvious choice, is not in this case the right effort.

In this same way we struggle to like ourselves just as we are until we can struggle no more. We give up, exhausted. In the aftermath of giving up our struggle, in the burnt out emptiness of our inner devastation, having given up the fight, having laid down our weapons, having surrendered to the impossibility of our struggle, then, in that stillness, we may begin to notice what is true in our experience right now. We may notice our body sensations, the sights and sounds around us, the emotions and thoughts that pass through us. Aha!

We have been practicing accessing this state of passive awareness, where we see clearly the hopes, fears and stories that storm through us. Perhaps we judge them, then notice the judgment. We bring as much compassion as we can manage to our own experience. And we create a compassionate space to experience whatever arises, even our least compassionate thoughts.

This practice of meditation is a practice. It is an ongoing process, and it is all about the process itself, in each moment, and not about some end product of liberation or enlightenment. Because the liberation that is possible is in each moment, not at the end of some path. The enlightenment is lost when we strive for it.

Now what does all this have to do with creativity. Well, as long as we believe we are products, how can we not believe that anything we create is even more of a product. And then, if we sell what we create, it is impossible not to take into account the marketing aspect of what we do.

But for creativity to truly thrive within us, if we are to access the infinite source instead of the finite depletable one, then we need to stay present in the moment of creating, present and fully engaged in the process.

The minute we think of it as product, we are projecting into the future. We are imagining other people looking at it, and that can send the chilly finger of fear into us, knocking us out of the infinite and into the fear-based finite shallow safety-seeking depletable mode. The infinite is only accessible from the present. Thinking of our creativity as a product knocks us out of the present. It’s as simple as that. The fear shuts us down, clams us up and maybe even causes us to abandon our passion.

In a poetry workshop I took with Prartho Sereno at College of Marin, we did many in class writing exercises to free ourselves from the confines of the finite source. And I found it incredibly helpful to remind myself ‘This is just an exercise.” I was freed of worrying about what I was writing being a Poem with a capital P and calligraphic script and all the other encumbrances that would make it a product to be read, discussed and criticized. So now whatever I am writing, I tell myself it’s just an exercise.

So what about marketing? Well, that’s just a different process. That’s a process that happens after we are done with a series of exercises in which we have thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The process of marketing is all about sharing a passion, communicating and opening to connection. Whether you are reading a poem at a mike, sending slides to a gallery or serving up your newest recipe to your friends, this too is process. Staying in the process we bring to it our full attention, noticing the fearful thoughts, the hopes and dreams, and having compassion for ourselves. Staying in the process, we nurture ourselves when we are feeling vulnerable. Staying in the process we remember that we ourselves are not products to be judged, that we are like drops of water briefly dancing above the oceans depths where we will soon return. Staying in the process we accept the challenge of sharing that which is joyful in us with a loving generosity to the world. This is what Buddhist teacher Philip Moffett so aptly calls “Dancing with Life.”

I have had a lifetime of struggles with this theme of product vs. process. But there are moments where the struggle falls away, where the process itself is so powerful that my resistance, my misgivings, my fears of failure and ridicule evaporate for a time. And when they rain down again another day, as they are prone to do, I bring as much compassion and awareness as I can muster. Again and again.

That is the practice.

Meditation & Creativity: Finite & Infinite

Having explored our own experience of creativity and what might be sabotaging our ability to begin or continue to create without beating ourselves up, now we will begin a discussion of a few common challenges to living a full, open and creative life. Over the course of these discussions, beginning today with ‘finite and infinite,’ you may see some commonalities and overlap. This is because all the things that sabotage our creativity and our lives in general are rooted in fear. We will explore the variations on the theme because you may relate to one way of seeing this fear arising more strongly than another.

Finite & Infinite
What could this mean in the context of what we are discussing?
Many of us are operating from a finite source within ourselves. We border on exhaustion because the energy we tap into is finite and easily depleted. Does this resonate with you? It isn’t a physical exhaustion, though it can manifest there as well. It is usually more a sense of being overwhelmed and never being enough.

So what do we do when we have a finite resource? The intelligent response would be to conserve it, budget it out. Naturally we become a little stingy with this energy as we feel it depleting so rapidly. This stinginess causes us to tighten up, to cling to what we have for fear of losing what little is left. This tightness causes tension in our words, our brush strokes and our interactions with others.

But what if instead of drawing on a finite resource, our metaphorical oil reserves, we could tap into our inner solar energy, our infinite source of creativity and joy?

This shift from finite to infinite resources within us is a natural one that happens as we develop a regular practice of meditation. When we operate from this infinite source we feel enriched in the process rather than depleted. Creating from this source, we feel that we are conduits for something larger than ourselves. You hear people say, ‘The book wrote itself,’ ‘The characters told me what to say,’ or ‘I was painting so in the zone and somehow this is what came through.’ We amaze ourselves when we produce something in this state. Our ego wants to take credit for it but can’t seem to do so, because there is this sense of having plugged in to something, so it’s not ‘ours’ in the small tight judgment-fearing sense of that word.

When we are writing, painting, singing, acting, designing our garden or whatever creative pursuit draws us, we are well aware of this shift. When we are in a finite mode we struggle. When we are in the infinite mode the process feels effortless. When we are in the finite mode we have incessant inner chatter, rude monologues that keep us too terrified to truly engage in the project at hand or keep us questioning the value of anything we do.

When we access that infinite source, we are open channels of creativity. Struggles fall away and are replaced with rich complex engaging challenges that make us feel incredibly alive. We have tapped into something so bountiful we can relax and enjoy it rather than worry about if it, or we, will be enough.

When we make this shift into the infinite, it feels like a blessing that just happened. This state of infinite richness doesn’t feel like something we can access at will. And maybe it’s for the best that we feel this to be true, because to believe otherwise might create a striving for it, which would block the possibility of it.

But when we meditate, by letting go of all striving, we open to that infinite source. It arises our of the quiet, out of our willingness to make space for the unknown, our willingness to be open and receptive and to let go of our need to control our experience. We lay down our defenses and simply accept whatever arises. We let go of the idea that what arises is us and all the judgment that stirs up, and all the fear of judgment by others.

By maintaining a regular practice of meditation, we create conducive conditions for accessing our infinite creative source.

Now when we are in this infinite state we may become so enamored of it that we cling to it, afraid of losing it. And thus it immediately falls away. Our fear of losing it immediately douses the creative flame.

With regular practice we can become more steady in our access to this infinite source. We are more accepting of what is our experience in this moment, regardless of whether it is euphoric or pedestrian, whether we are contented or in pain. This acceptance is not resignation, not ‘oh, whatever.’ It is more awake, alive and juicy than that. Whatever arises is held in loving awareness that has both compassion and curiosity. In our concentration practice we see the transitory nature of all experience. We can discover pure joy, not dependent on causes and conditions. That is the gateway to the infinite.

Now this idea of shifting from a finite source to an infinite source may very well be shifting from left brain thinking to activating the right brain. You may be familiar with Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard neuroatomist and author of the book Stroke of Insight, who in 1996 suffered a massive stroke. Her stroke was centered in her left brain, so she was able to really experience the right brain, and because she was studying brains, she saw this as an incredible opportunity to pay attention to her experience. Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade!

She describes the difference between the left brain and the right brain this way:
“The right brain is all about the big picture. It thinks in pictures and it looks at everything as connected. It experiences everything as radiating energy and is intimately connected to the kinesthetic movement and learning of our bodies. It is our intuition, which includes our ability to look at the big picture and see if everything is fitting together in a way that makes sense. It is all about the present moment experience of now.
“The left brain is all about breaking our lives down into details. It thinks in language and uses words to communicate what it is thinking. It thinks linearly and knows that we need to put our socks on before our shoes and why. It is capable of connecting our thoughts with thoughts in our past, giving linearity to our thinking. It is our identity, the cells that say ‘I am an individual’ and these are all the details of my life. It defines things as right or wrong, good or bad.”
Obviously we need both parts of our brain. Each plays a vital role. In her experience of only having the right brain to depend on, she was unable to function in the world, unable to make a phone call or remember what she needed to do next. But in our culture we over emphasize the left brain, and the right brain isn’t exercised and its findings aren’t recognized as valid.
So through meditation practice we are bringing the two hemispheres of our brain back into balance. We are cultivating the ability to access the infinite.