(This is the second part of a series on creativity, which began with a piece I wrote a while back called “To Be Creative, Step Beyond The Survival Mindset.”)
Many of us are driven by a need to “know who we are”—a desire for a clear understanding of our roles in society and the universe. It gives us a feeling of security to say and think things about ourselves like “I’m a lawyer,” “I’m a father,” “I’m an opera lover,” and so on. However, we can get so attached to the comfortable feelings these labels offer us that we end up limiting our creativity and enjoyment of life.
Each identity we adopt comes with a set of beliefs about what we can and can’t do, say and think. If I think of myself as a respectable professional, for instance, I’ll probably shy away from going to a party with my face painted purple, even if I’m curious about what it would be like. If I see myself as a countercultural modern artist, I’ll probably avoid doing something “mainstream” like going to a baseball game, even if I secretly like the sport. If we did something that ran counter to our identity, we might lose the feeling of safety it offers us, and experience the sinking sense that we “don’t know who we are anymore.”
On the other hand, when we become willing to dispense with our self-labels and stare into that abyss of uncertainty, we gain access to inspiration we may not normally feel. I recently saw this in a client I worked with. He’s a lawyer and a devoted husband and father, and he loves playing the harp. For a long time, he harbored the secret dream of releasing an album of him playing Irish songs. However, he was convinced that someone with his job and family situation “just doesn’t do that.”
As we worked together, he came to recognize that there were no practical reasons why he couldn’t release his album. He doubted that doing it would harm his colleagues or family. Ultimately, he realized, only his beliefs about what a lawyer and father “should” and “shouldn’t” do were holding him back. He saw that his desire to play music was stronger than his need to be what a lawyer “should” be, and he decided to finally start recording. In other words, he was able to express his creativity when he became willing to let go of his identity.
How can we escape our identities’ hold on us and access the inspiration we want in our work and elsewhere? Over time I’ve developed and learned some useful exercises for letting go of who you think you are, and reconnecting with your natural imagination and spontaneity. I’ll share three of them here.
1. Do something solely for yourself. One exercise I often recommend to people whose creativity feels blocked is to, at least once, do something alone that’s entirely for their own benefit. Examples might include taking a walk in the woods by yourself, going to a concert alone, writing in your journal, and so on. I tend to ask clients not just to do something by themselves, but to commit not to even tell anyone what they’ve done.
If you think about it for a moment, you may see that the identities you’ve formed for yourself are based on the ways you relate to others. If you think of yourself as a musician, for instance, that means you perform music for other people. If you see yourself as a parent, that means you raise and take care of your children.
When you’re by yourself, your self-labels have little meaning—if you lived alone on a desert island, for example, it would make little sense to perceive yourself as a lawyer, as there would be no clients, adversaries or courts to interact with. This, by the way, is one reason I think many of us feel afraid when we’re alone—our roles lose their meaning, and we start to worry that we don’t know who we are. When you do something alone that no one else will ever know about, you get an opportunity to experience living without a role or identity for a little while.
As the identities you rely on for a sense of security start to slip out of your awareness, you’ll likely experience two sensations. One, as I described, is the fear of not knowing who you are. But if you can breathe through this fear and let it pass away, you’ll likely feel a sense of creative freedom you don’t normally experience. I encourage you to keep a journal in these solitary moments—you may have some of your best ideas.
Remember, before you take time for yourself, to commit to keeping quiet about what you’re about to do. This way, you won’t be distracted by thoughts about how others will see what you’re doing, and how you can positively “spin” it to them. As Michael Brown writes in his wonderful book The Presence Process, “the risk we take in talking about work we are doing on our experiences and for ourselves” can have us start doing our work “to confirm and validate our efforts as being worthy and appropriate.”
Although this activity is only intended for you, the creative gifts you gain from it may serve to improve others’ lives as well going forward.
2. Meditate for five minutes. Many people think of meditation as an exercise they have to spend many hours doing, while sitting in a lotus position, if they want to see any “results.” When it comes to lifting yourself out of a creative lull, however, often just a few minutes is enough. If you simply sit down, close your eyes, and focus your attention on your breathing, for five minutes, you’ll likely be surprised at how quickly and spontaneously ideas can arise.
I’ve used this technique to begin the creative process for many articles I’ve written. In the past, when I felt like it was time again to send out an article for publication or post one on my website, inspiration often failed to strike and I’d get frustrated. I used to assume the only solution was to wait until insight randomly came to me. But I discovered one day that, if I turned to meditation for just a few minutes, a new, exciting topic would quickly reveal itself to me, and I could jump back into writing immediately afterward.
Why are brief meditations a great way to stimulate creativity? I think one key reason is that, in meditation, we’re momentarily freed from our identities. For those few quiet moments, we aren’t playing any role in the world, and there’s no need to please or impress anyone. When we let go of the rules governing what we can and can’t think or do, fresh ideas arise far more easily.
3. Write with your non-dominant hand. This technique may sound a little strange at first, but it’s actually been endorsed by many psychologists as a method for getting more connected with repressed thoughts and emotions. To do this, find a blank piece of paper and write at the top of it, using the hand you normally write with, “What do I want to create?” Take a deep breath and focus for a few moments on that question. Then, place your pen in the hand you don’t usually write with—that is, if you’re right-handed, use your left hand, and vice versa—and put down an answer.
Reconnecting with parts of yourself you may have been cut off from can bring up intense sensation. As Dr. Mavis Tsai writes in A Guide To Functional Analytic Psychotherapy, “often, to the surprise of clients, more unusual and childlike responses tend to be expressed, which can in turn result in intense emotions, connections to old memories, and explorations of difficult and important material.” However, when we get back in touch with the childlike aspects of ourselves we aren’t normally conscious of, we can rediscover a playfulness, curiosity and imagination we forgot we had.
As with the five-minute meditation I described, I got into doing this exercise when faced with writer’s block, and I’ve found it very effective. You may be surprised at the originality and brilliance of the ideas that flow out of you when you simply switch your writing hand for a little while.
Many of us have developed ideas about ourselves—what we might call identities—that artificially limit what we can accomplish in life. For instance, some of us have come to think of ourselves as shy or meek, and thus we avoid conflict and let others take advantage of us. Some of us identify ourselves as unmotivated, and thus we hold back from pursuing the education or careers we want for fear of failure. Still others see themselves as unsociable or unattractive, and have decided it’s hopeless to try to meet someone they’re attracted to.
We often forget what prompted us to buy into these identities, and even that we existed before we had these beliefs at all. When asked how they decided that all of these hurtful notions about themselves are true, many people will simply respond “I just know” or “it’s always been that way.” But there must have been some moment when we decided, or some period of time in which we gradually concluded, that certain beliefs about ourselves are true. At the very least, when we were embryos in our mothers’ wombs, it’s unlikely we were suffering from self-esteem problems.
I used to have many painful ideas about myself—most notably, that I was too shy or strange to deal with people, and that people generally just wanted me to leave them alone. Although I was attached to these harmful identities, on some level I knew I couldn’t have believed in them all my life. There must have been some point in time when I decided they were true. What was life like before I started thinking these terrible thoughts? I wondered. But each time I’d try to remember my experience of the world before these beliefs, my mind would simply draw a blank.
A while back, I happened to read about a Zen koan, or saying, that goes “show me your original face before you were born.” Not surprisingly, my initial reaction to this was “that makes no sense—I didn’t exist before I was born.” But I also noticed that, when I seriously pondered what I was like “before I was born,” I experienced a peaceful emptiness in my mind. Most importantly, all the negative thinking I usually did about myself, in that moment, disappeared as if it had never been there. For a few seconds, I was free of my limiting identities.
I was fascinated by the peace the koan brought me, and for a few months I regularly thought about it, hoping for a deeper understanding of its meaning. One sleepless morning at about four a.m., I finally came to a realization. In the words “before you were born,” “you” means your identity—the beliefs you’ve formed about yourself and who you are in the world. You “gave birth” to your identity when you made decisions about who and what you were. The purpose (or, at least, one purpose) of the koan is to show us we existed—we had an “original face”—before we adopted any beliefs about ourselves. We are not our beliefs, in other words—we are their creator and believer.
When we contemplate the koan, we get a firsthand experience of what life was like before we developed all these harmful ideas about ourselves. As I discovered for myself, that identityless state gifts us with a peace and freedom we rarely experience in our lives. At first, when we try to remember what we were like before we adopted our identities, we feel like we’re “drawing a blank,” not coming up with anything. However, we only see it that way because we’re so accustomed to having all these thoughts about ourselves, and in the identityless state those thoughts don’t arise. In fact, that calm blankness is who we were before we decided we were this or that.
I also recognized that, whenever I wanted, I could return to the peace of my “original face.” Whenever I started running myself down, replaying memories of difficult interactions with others, or generally thinking negatively, all I had to do was remember how I experienced life before I adopted the harmful beliefs. This memory gave me more than pleasant nostalgia—it actually put me back into the tranquil emotional state of my very early life.
In that state, life took on a joyful and effortless quality. Without all my ideas about my limitations as a person, the anxieties about relating with people that used to trouble me simply faded away. Spiritual teacher Osho‘s description of this state in Courage: The Joy of Living Dangerously captures its essence well: “Just be what you are and don’t care a bit about the world. Then you will feel a tremendous relaxation and a deep peace within your heart. This is what Zen people call your ‘original face’—relaxed, without tensions, without pretensions, without hypocrisies, without the so-called disciplines of how you should behave.”
As always, I’ll offer an exercise to help others experience the peace this practice has brought me. If negative beliefs about yourself have been limiting you, try the following. When some harmful idea about yourself arises—for instance, “I’m too scared to do this,” “I’m not an interesting person,” “people are going to mock me if I try this,” and so on, pause what you’re doing for a moment. Ask yourself when you decided that this was true. Then, see if you can recall how you felt before you developed this hurtful notion.
You may, like many people, experience the feeling that your idea has “always been true”—that you’ve “always” been inadequate, unattractive, not smart enough, or something else. If this happens, ask yourself how you felt when you were an infant, before you were born, or—if those two questions yield the same answer—before you existed. As you inquire into how you thought about yourself further and further back in time, you’ll eventually come to a point where your mind becomes blank—where you can’t come up with anything you believed or felt about yourself.
Don’t give up here simply because you don’t think you can remember anything—allow the blank sensation to persist, and hold your attention on it. As you simply give the emptiness permission to be, you may find a sense of calm and focus pervading you. This is the experience of your “original face”—your natural state before you learned to label yourself in limiting ways. You can return to it any time you feel restricted by your thinking.
It seems like there’s no idea people will defend more fiercely or passionately than the notion that they aren’t good enough human beings. Many people, when talking about how inferior or inadequate they supposedly are, undergo an amazing transformation. People who usually shy away from conflict or seem apathetic suddenly become champion debaters when arguing that they haven’t achieved enough with their lives. People with generally positive outlooks on life suddenly become incurable cynics and pessimists when they’re convincing you of how badly they screwed something up. And so on.
A recent conversation with a friend reminded me of this quirky aspect of the human personality. My friend is a highly-skilled and well-paid biotech researcher. “On paper,” as they say, he’s got everything going for him—he has a first-rate education, he’s in great shape and he’s got a nice house and car. Unfortunately, however, he and his girlfriend split up six months ago. Since then, he’s been insisting to me that he’s not a successful guy at all—in fact, he says, he’s a “loser.”
This hasn’t been for lack of trying on my part. Every time he’s called himself a loser, I’ve reminded him of all his great qualities and everything he’s accomplished in his life. But for every positive thing I say about him, he’s got a reason why it’s irrelevant, unimportant or exaggerated. If I remind him of how well-liked he is at work, for instance, he’ll tell me people are just pitying him. If I remind him of something he has fun doing, like playing tennis, he’ll insist it doesn’t matter. If I tell him he’s a kind and generous person, he’ll tell me those are weak qualities that he wishes he were rid of.
As flattery was getting me nowhere, I decided to take a different tack. I asked him how he would feel if he didn’t think he was a loser. (This was inspired by Byron Katie‘s process of undermining negative thoughts by asking yourself, among other things, who you’d be if you didn’t believe your thoughts.) Of course, like any good friend, I was hoping he’d experience a life-changing epiphany when he pondered this question, never feel down on himself again, and live the rest of his life in a state of undisturbed inner peace.
However, I didn’t quite get the reaction I’d hoped for. Instead, he became angry, telling me I was missing the point because he obviously did think he was a loser, and lecturing me on how I was being unrealistic and needed to “live in the real world.” But when he calmed down, he acknowledged how fiercely he’d been defending the idea that he was a loser, and how strange, and maybe even amusing, that seemed.
This conversation got me wondering: why do we hold on so tightly to negative thoughts about ourselves? Why do we defend ourselves against giving up those thoughts, despite how painful they are? I’ve come to believe it’s because, consciously or otherwise, we see these ideas about ourselves as part of who we are. We need these ideas, we think, to be complete human beings—losing them would be like losing some part of our bodies, or even being completely annihilated.
In discussing a client who, like my friend, harbored the belief “I’m a loser,” psychologist Betsie Carter-Haar aptly describes this sense of identification with our ideas about ourselves:
A positive experience is simply not acceptable to the ‘Loser’ because its quality is different from, and inconsistent with, that of his self-image. But it goes even further: a positive experience is actually threatening. What if he were not really a Loser? Who would he be then? . . . . [H]is fear of loss of identity, of a deep void of inner emptiness, if not correctly understood is often too overwhelming to be faced. In such a situation it frequently seems less painful to have a negative sense of self than no sense of self at all.
When we persistently have certain thoughts about ourselves, these thoughts eventually become so familiar and constant that we conclude they’re actually part of us. Our beliefs become as comfortable and familiar as our bodies, homes, jobs, and so on. For instance, if we believe—for whatever reason—that we’re bad and inadequate for long enough, we become identified with that belief, and protect the belief by arguing tenaciously with anyone who tries to convince us otherwise.
How do we detach ourselves from, or end our identification with, our ideas about who we are? How do we dispel the need to defend our “loserhood” to the death? One helpful technique, I’ve found, is to regularly experience being in a state in which you aren’t thinking anything about yourself. Try sitting alone, closing your eyes, and focusing your attention entirely on some sound or sensation—either within yourself or the outside world. You might, for instance, focus on the feeling and sound of your breathing, or on the sound of birds outside your window.
When your awareness is entirely fixed on a sensation, rather than your mind’s memories, interpretations and judgments, you are not thinking. Nonetheless, you are the same being you’ve always been. Even when you have no ideas or beliefs about yourself or anything else, you remain you—ceasing to think, or perform any other mental activity, doesn’t destroy you at all. This realization helps weaken your attachment to the ways you think about and perceive yourself.
Recognize, as well, that you existed—you were the person you are today—before you had a single thought. Up until some point in your early development, whether in the womb or after your birth, you hadn’t thought about anything. You didn’t see yourself as a “loser,” “winner,” “doctor,” “mother,” or any of the other labels you’ve since attached to yourself. In fact, you didn’t see yourself at all—you simply were yourself. Regularly reflecting on this is a great way to liberate yourself from negative thinking.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Positive Thinking, located at http://www.widowsquest.com/carnival-of-positive-thinking-57/.)
My friend, a highly-paid financial professional, often complains about her job. She doesn’t like the long hours, the difficult people, the office politics, and so forth. Usually, I just sit and listen to her concerns, because it feels like she’s more interested in a sympathetic ear than anything else. But one day, I couldn’t help but suggest that, if she really dislikes her job so much, she consider what she really wants in a career and possibly even make a change.
She looked at me incredulously. “I’m focused on surviving right now,” she said. “I don’t have time to think about what I ‘really want.’”
I’m surprised at how many times I’ve heard professionals with incomes well into the six figures worry about their “survival” in the event of a career change. Generally, I suspect most of them could handle at least a few months of their current expenses even with no income at all. Some, for various reasons, are genuinely living from paycheck to paycheck—they may have student loans they need to repay, or maybe they just racked up large expenses leading the high-powered professional life. But even they, if they had to, could probably reduce their expenses enough to eat and have a place to live if they had to forgo income for a little while.
Why, then, do highly-paid professionals often phrase their concerns about career change in terms of their “survival”? Actually, I think their use of that word is appropriate, because it speaks to deeper truths about the way we see our careers. When we say “but if I change careers, I won’t survive,” we’re not actually concerned about the survival of our physical bodies. We’re not worried that we’re going to starve or have nowhere warm to sleep. Instead, we’re worried about the survival of the identities we’ve created for ourselves in our minds.
It’s no secret that, in our society, we tend to closely identify with our occupations. When someone asks what you “do” or what you “are,” I’ll bet you usually respond with your job description—“I’m a lawyer,” “I’m an engineer,” and so forth. Often, when a person loses their job or retires, you’ll hear them say they feel like they’ve “lost part of themselves,” or that they aren’t sure what they’re “good for” anymore. The way we tend to perceive our careers, it’s as if they’re limbs or organs of our bodies, and removing them would endanger our lives.
We can also get attached to others seeing us in certain ways based on our jobs, and to the prestige and material things those jobs bestow on us. If we have high-paying careers, for instance, we start seeing “wealthy” as part of our identities. If we have demanding jobs, we identify with being “high-powered” and “no-nonsense.” If we have jobs with exposure to the public, we identify with being glamorous or “high-profile.” And so on.
This way of thinking about our careers is common, but it’s also problematic. When we feel like our careers are who we are, we naturally become consumed with fear of losing, or performing badly in, our jobs. We wake up in the early hours of the morning worrying that we made a mistake on a project. We’re afraid of change and innovation in doing our jobs, because change presents a risk we can’t afford to take. If you totally identify with your career, of course, this way of thinking is perfectly logical—if you are your career, losing or changing that career would mean your destruction.
While money isn’t everything, it’s interesting that the people who are most financially successful in our society seem to be those who are least closely identified with their careers. These are the entrepreneurs and business owners, whose incomes are based on the profits and losses of their businesses rather than steady salaries. Owning a business requires you to be willing to take the risk that the business will fail. If you completely identify with the occupation you’re in, you’ll perceive yourself as a failure if your business fails, and thus you’ll probably be afraid to start one in the first place.
What, then, do you do if you want to make a career change, but your current job feels so embedded in your identity that you’re afraid to take the next step? The answer is to understand that you are not your career, and that you don’t need to completely identify with your career to lead a fulfilling life, but I’m not going to simply tell you that. I want you to experience that fact firsthand, on a physical level.
What I’m going to recommend may sound a little metaphysical, but bear with me a moment and see if it gets results. Find a place where you can sit alone in silence with your eyes closed. Once you’ve done this, focus your attention on your hands, and allow yourself to feel the sensations arising in them. Perhaps you feel a warmth, a tingling, a prickly sensation, or something else. When you’ve done this for a little while, gradually bring your attention up your arms, across your torso, up your neck and into your head, and then down into your legs and feet. Notice how each part of your body feels when you place your full attention on it.
After doing this exercise a few times, you’ll likely experience feelings of peace and aliveness in your body, as if your body were suffused with an inner glow. When you’re feeling this sensation, you’re experiencing what you are at the most basic level—what we might call “energy,” “consciousness” or “life.” This is the energy of which you, and all other life forms in the universe, are composed. You’ve been made of this energy for as long as you’ve existed. No matter what happens in your life—no matter what job you do, what you accomplish, who you love, and what you own—you will always be, at the deepest level, this energy.
We start identifying with our circumstances in the world—our jobs, relationships, cars, and so forth—when we lose touch with this energy. Life starts to seem pointless when we forget what we really are, and we grasp for things in the world to give it meaning. Thankfully, the energy that we are is always there for us to reconnect with, and to give us peace when our lives seem busy or stressful. When you’re truly connected with your life energy, you understand at a deep level that no career change can ever threaten your survival, and you find the fear of the unknown that restricted you fading away.