I used to believe that I shouldn’t sit down to write unless I had a compelling vision of what I’d say. Unfortunately, this attitude was the reason why, for many years, I didn’t do any creative writing. Sure, I wrote a lot, but only when somebody else (1) gave me a subject to write about and (2) was willing to pay me a bunch of money or give me a good grade.
Eventually, I started taking a look at why I had this mindset. Why was I reluctant to just sit down and see whether any interesting ideas came up?
What I ultimately saw was that I lacked faith in my creativity. I was assuming that, if I tried to write without an airtight plan, I’d squander hours at my desk, and end up with nothing but frustration to show for it.
My Emptiness Experiment
Armed with this knowledge, I decided to experiment with simply sitting, and trusting that inspiration would arise. I committed to myself that, if necessary, I’d sit there all night. I’d only give up if I woke up facedown on my desk in front of an empty computer screen.
My prediction that I’d get frustrated proved to be right. I labored mightily to fill the blank screen with words, but none of my ideas or sentences seemed to satisfy me. My shoulders grew painfully rigid, as if I were trying to physically push the emptiness away.
After an hour or two of helpless thrashing, it dawned on me that I wasn’t following the spirit of my experiment. Instead of having faith that my creative energies would emerge on their own timetable, I was trying to force them to work.
Dropping The Need To “Just Do It”
I began making progress only when I dropped the struggle. I sighed deeply, let my shoulders relax, erased the words I’d written just to fill space, and simply stared into the creative vacuum on my monitor.
In the moment when my flailing ceased, the emptiness in my mind, and on the screen, began to dissipate. Effortlessly, fluidly, another article began taking shape. Within twenty minutes, the new piece was ready for editing.
As it turned out, the physical act of typing the article wasn’t the hard part of the writing process. The difficult part was trusting that, eventually, my creativity would come out to play — letting go of my need to fill the emptiness, and having faith that it would pass away on its own.
In other words, I see the emptiness we encounter when we’re writing, or doing some other creative pursuit, as a test of our faith in ourselves. We pass the test when we end our thrashing and trust that, in its own time, and in its own unpredictable way, inspiration will show up.
Many people see writing as a matter of “just doing it” — of forcing ourselves to write something, no matter how much pushing, fighting or flailing it takes. This “beat yourself into submission” strategy seems to work for some people. But if it’s wearing thin for you, I invite you to try simply sitting, relaxing, and waiting on your muse.
I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago that, on this very blog, we had our fascinating discussion about the productivity challenges readers are facing, and how mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga can help us move through those challenges. It was an inspiring chat for me, and I’ve re-read it many times.
Last time I re-read the post, it proved to be more than just a source of nostalgia — it gave me the idea to put out an audio program dealing with the questions people asked in the comments, and in the many other settings where I’ve spoken to people about Inner Productivity.
I now have voluminous notes about what I’m going to say in the program, and I’ve started recording it. Before I release it, I want to check in with you to make sure I’m not leaving out any concerns you may be dealing with in your working life, whether it comes to focusing, staying motivated, letting go of anxiety, actually enjoying what you do, or something else. Simple as that.
So, I want to throw the floor open to you. Maybe “throwing the floor” isn’t the most coherent figure of speech, but you get the point. I want to know what you’d like to hear me address in the program, and if you let me know I’ll do my best to cover it.
To get the creative juices flowing, here’s a list of some common issues people raised in our earlier conversation:
Self-Starting: “I’m working from home, and it’s hard to stay on task when no one’s keeping tabs on me.”
Overwhelm: “I feel overwhelmed when I see a lot of items on my to-do list.”
Perfectionism: “I struggle with a sense that I’ve got to do everything perfectly, or not do it at all.”
Inadequacy: “I have trouble starting the project I want to do, because I worry that it’s not going to be good enough.”
Image Consciousness: “I’m having difficulty doing the work I want to do, because I get too concerned about what others will think of it.”
“I haven’t done enough”: “I keep getting to the end of the day, and feeling like I didn’t accomplish enough.”
Resentment: “I get bogged down in resentment, because it seems like people are asking so much from me in my work.”
Distraction: “My mind keeps jumping around to all kinds of different ideas when I’m trying to focus on something.”
How about you? What issues would you like to hear about in the program?
I’ve published a guest post at Kala Ambrose’s Explore Your Spirit blog called “A Spiritual Solution to Writer’s Block.” I talk about how just allowing the creative blankness we experience in our work to be, rather than fighting it or running away from it, is the best way to reconnect with our inspiration and imagination. I hope you enjoy it.
I’m excited to share with you my recent interview with life coach, author and speaker Tess Marshall. Tess is the author of Flying By The Seat Of My Soul and the inspiring blog The Bold Life.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
* The amazing story of Tess’s journey from being a teenage mother selling dried flowers to working as an author, coach and speaker
* How Tess created a popular, high-traffic blog in just six months
* How to create routines to help you make regular progress toward your goals
* A powerful technique for deciding between all the options available to you in work and life, and overcoming “choice overload”
* How to enjoy the journey toward achieving your goals, even when things feel frustratingly slow
* And much more . . .
One of the most liberating realizations I’ve had in my life is that I’m not responsible for my ideas. In other words, I can do very little to make myself become creative, except for keeping my mind open to receiving insights, and writing them down as they come up. In this post, I’ll talk about how I came to this perspective, and how it can give us more peace and productivity in our work.
This perspective dawned on me when I noticed my best ideas came to me while I was meditating. After each meditation session—even short, ten-minute ones—I’d find myself frantically scurrying to the keyboard to type up the inspiration that struck. This became so effective for me that I started a practice I call “staccato meditation,” where I meditate for five minutes for each half-hour of work. Writing proceeds so fluidly, I’ve found, when I work that way.
When this became clear, I noticed my experience was at odds with the conventional wisdom on creativity. Inspiration will arise, the common belief goes, if you keep your nose to the grindstone—the more time you spend in front of the computer, or wherever you do your work, the more likely you are to have a breakthrough idea. But that wasn’t how it seemed to work for me—instead, my imagination operated best when I stopped writing, sat quietly and just breathed.
Another thing I started to notice was that creativity arises suddenly and without warning. It’s not as if inspiration strikes at predictable times of day, or your left eyelid starts twitching madly to signal incoming ideas—you can never quite tell when they’re going to pop up. In short, creativity didn’t seem like something I could predict or control—at most, it was something I could stay open to through meditation, as if I were planting a lightning rod and waiting for a bolt to strike it.
The Surprising Implications
When I had these realizations, I got to thinking. If what I experienced is true for everyone—if we aren’t actually responsible for our ideas—why do we have a habit in our culture of putting famous creative people on a pedestal?
If I’m right about how creativity works, that means the well-known artists, writers, musicians and so on in our society didn’t really come up with the ideas that brought them fame—at best, they were just really good at transcribing and organizing the inspiration that struck them. Some artists recognize this themselves—look, for example, at J.K. Rowling’s statement that Harry Potter “just strolled into my head fully formed.” Our habit of treating these people like gods seems a bit silly from this perspective.
I also thought of how invested my ego can get in my creative projects. For example, when I’m working on a book or article, I sometimes find myself imagining that I’m telling others “yes, that’s right, that’s my work,” and feeling special. The downside is that, when my ego gets wrapped up in a project, I waste time obsessing over whether my ideas will look clever enough to my audience. I’ll bet that, if you’re a writer, you can relate.
If it’s true that I’m not responsible for my ideas, I recognized, I don’t have to endure the suffering that comes with seeking ego gratification through my work. It makes no sense for me to invest my ego in my projects, because the ideas at the core of my writing aren’t even “mine.” In other words, if I’m not responsible for the ideas I put on the page, it’s misguided for me to take credit for them, or beat myself up if they don’t seem good enough.
A “Productivity Anti-Hack” If I Ever Saw One
The greatest gift that came with this realization was a new sense of freedom in my work. When my ego became invested in a project, my work proceeded slowly and painfully. After all, in that frame of mind, my self-worth was, in a sense, riding on how my work would be received—of course I second-guessed myself and suffered from “analysis paralysis.”
But when I acknowledged I wasn’t responsible for the ideas in my writing—all I was really doing was transcribing them and showing them to the world—I understood that my value as a human being had no relationship to what I wrote. How could it, if the ideas weren’t even mine? As it no longer seemed like my writing could “make or break me” as a person, there was no need to endlessly second-guess my work. Words flowed most easily and naturally when I recognized my lack of responsibility for my creativity.
The increase in my productivity when I detached my ego from my creative work also seemed to defy the conventional wisdom. In our culture, we tend to assume the way to motivate yourself to do your best work is to imagine everybody praising you as wonderful and special for doing a good job. In other words, you should motivate yourself by visualizing the money, fame, relationships and so on you’ll get if your work “makes it big.” Accepting that my creativity had very little to do with “me” went against this approach. But it helped me get more done, and do higher-quality work.
Interestingly, I found, this is consistent with psychological research on creativity and productivity. For instance, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience is about how people become able to enter a state of “flow,” or peak effectiveness, in their work and play.
In a “flow” state, Csikszentmihalyi writes, our attention is so focused on the task in front of us that we forget about ourselves and our concerns. We can’t enter this state if our attention is focused on how others will see, or what we’re going to get out of, our work—an “obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive self-consciousness,” and flow is inaccessible to a “person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive her.”
Thus it makes sense that, when we let go of the notion that the ideas in our writing are “ours,” our self-consciousness disappears and the flow state becomes available.
Seeing It For Yourself
If you aren’t sure what I’m saying resonates with you, I invite you to try a simple exercise to see for yourself whether it’s true. To begin, see if you can put aside any of your preconceived notions about how creativity works—how to stimulate it, what parts of the brain are responsible for it, and so on. Next, sit alone in a quiet place, close your eyes, and begin to breathe slowly and deeply. Simply allow whatever enters your mind to be there—don’t strive to find good ideas or make any other kind of effort. Continue for five to ten minutes, and then open your eyes.
I suspect that, during your brief meditation, some ideas arose in your mind. Perhaps they weren’t great or groundbreaking ideas—maybe the only things that came up were items to add to your shopping list. That doesn’t matter for the purposes of this exercise—the important point is that ideas came into being.
Now, notice that, between these ideas, there were periods of emptiness—moments when your mind was free of thought. These may be brief, but you can notice them if you pay close attention. Observe that you had no control over how long these gaps between ideas lasted—you couldn’t do anything to make the next idea arise more quickly. Notice that you also had no control over the content of the ideas that came up. You couldn’t choose whether your next idea would be about your shopping list, or the next classic of Western literature.
In short, notice how minor your role in the creative process actually was. All you did was pay attention and listen for ideas, as if you were listening to the radio. You didn’t decide on the content or timing of the ideas—instead, it was almost as if the ideas themselves made those decisions. In ordinary life, we don’t see that creativity works this way, as our minds are distracted by so much stimulation. Meditation allows us to see how little responsibility we really have for the ideas we usually call “our own.”
If you repeat this meditation over time, I think you’ll also start to notice another interesting thing: your ideas like to be listened to. Normally, when we’re working on a project and we’re feeling blocked, we tend to get angry at ourselves, demanding that our minds give us something useful and original. But when you become willing to simply listen to your ideas, without demanding or expecting anything, I think you’ll find that your imagination is at its liveliest. Your creativity flows most naturally and freely when you let go of it and allow it to do its work.
If I’m Not Responsible, Who Is?
I realize I haven’t addressed a question that might be on some people’s minds, which is: if the creative element of my work doesn’t come from me, where does it come from? To be honest, the reason I haven’t answered that question is that I don’t know. All I know is that, wherever it comes from, it doesn’t come from the bundle of thoughts, feelings and needs I usually call “me.”
If I were to give the source of our creativity a name, I’d call it “the universe,” “reality,” “truth,” or something else implying that it’s a force that’s all around us and accessible to all of us. I’m curious to hear how you think about it.
Most of the time, it seems, what we do is oriented toward our survival and stability—making sure our basic needs are met, and that we maintain our present lifestyles. We work to ensure we have food, shelter, and the many other items considered critical to survival in our culture; pay our bills to make sure our homes have water and electricity; supervise our children to make sure they stay safe; and so on. Although this mindset is good at keeping us and our families alive, it doesn’t do wonders for our creativity.
When we bring the survival mindset to our creative activities—particularly those we do in our jobs—we tend to have trouble producing our best work. We become more concerned with meeting our employers’ and clients’ expectations and getting things done quickly than creating something we’re proud of. The creative juices most freely flow, it seems, in those activities we do for their own sake, whether or not they make us money, impress anyone, or do anything else to ensure our stability.
The experience of my friend, a freelance writer, is a good example. Most of what he does involves writing magazine articles, which he does on strict deadlines and with heavy input from editors. In his spare time, however, he’s been slowly but surely writing a novel.
He’s told me that, while his magazine work is polished and well-respected, the pressures he’s under and the rules he has to follow detract from the joy of writing. No matter how interesting he finds the subject he’s writing on and how happy he is with his efforts, there’s usually a nagging anxiety in the background about what his editors will think, whether he’ll meet the deadline and how much he’ll get paid. Also, he’s told me, this feeling sometimes has him compromise the quality of his work in his own eyes to please editors and readers.
By contrast, although he’s making no money from writing his novel, and few people even know he’s doing it, it’s the greatest source of fulfillment in his working life right now. When his finances and others’ opinions of him aren’t on the line, in other words, he does his best and most enjoyable work.
In an ideal world, we’d all have a work arrangement that let us fully give our creative gifts to the world and have financial security as well. We’d both genuinely enjoy what we do and manage to live comfortably. But many of us don’t have much confidence that such a situation is possible. Whenever we feel like our money, health, families and other vital parts of our lifestyles are at stake, anxiety and compromise creep in—as in my friend’s situation—and make it hard to give our creative best.
However, I’ve come to believe this ideal working situation is easier to achieve than we tend to think. The key, I’ve found, is to do some activity—whether before working, in the middle of working, or both—that takes you out of the survival mentality and helps you focus all your attention on the task you’re doing. For a few moments, do something that contributes nothing to your survival, and isn’t geared toward satisfying or pleasing anyone else.
I do this through regular, short meditation sessions both before and throughout my work. When I’m writing articles, for instance, I usually meditate for five minutes both before I begin and after every half hour of writing. The peaceful emptiness I enter as I sit and breathe with my eyes closed helps me with both the ideas and execution of the pieces I write.
If I sit down with no ideas, or only a vague idea, of a topic to write on, a subject has an uncanny tendency to come to me as I’m meditating. And if I find myself starting to worry about how the piece will be received, what I’ll get paid if it’s published, and so on, returning to the emptiness is a great way to refocus me on my task and restore my joy in doing it.
By contrast, if I don’t take the time to meditate and escape from the survival mindset, concerns about the importance of what I’m writing to my finances or reputation may creep into my mind. If that happens, I’ll start second-guessing the subject and content of what I’m writing. This slows down the creative process. Although I may feel like I’m saving time by diving headlong into my work with no breaks, I actually end up being less efficient and creating a lower-quality final product.
Writers in both psychology and spirituality have endorsed the idea of sparking creativity by taking your mind off your survival and your own interests, and bringing all your attention to the creative act itself. Our own wants and needs cause anxiety that obstructs the creative process, and temporarily forgetting them helps the process flow freely. Some say that, when we’re empty of self-seeking thoughts, we become open to inspiration from a universal intelligence far greater than the limited minds and bodies we take ourselves to be.
As spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti said, “if you are at all aware of your own thinking, or your own ways of acting, you will find that you have very little, if anything at all, original.” To find creativity, “you must put aside knowledge and be in a state of such negation . . . that the mind is very sensitive, very alert, and so capable of perceiving something new.” Similarly, Dr. Bruce Forciea writes in Unlocking The Healing Code: Discover The 7 Keys To Unlimited Healing that “the mind becomes quiet when engaged in creative thought. It is as if the actions come from another source than your own mind.”
We all need to pay our bills and put food on the table, but when we’re looking for creative inspiration it’s best to temporarily put those concerns out of our minds. We’re most productive and we do our best work, I’ve found, when we focus all our attention on the task at hand, and let our worries about how much we’ll get paid or liked for what we do slip out of our awareness.
Publishing journal and magazine articles used to be a stressful experience for me. When I first started, of course, it took me much longer to prepare each piece for submission, because I wasn’t familiar with the editing process. More importantly, however, I had a nagging guilt at the edge of my awareness about sending my writing to editors. Wasn’t I taking up their time by making them read my work? Wouldn’t the magazine have to use a lot of paper or web programming time to make my articles publicly available? Was all that worth it just so I could get my name in print?
Although I had this feeling, I kept chugging away at the publication process, hoping some day I’d gain some insight that would change my perspective. Eventually, an interaction with one of my readers gifted me with that insight. It was nothing particularly spectacular or unique—a woman simply e-mailed me to tell me one of my articles helped change her outlook on life for the better. But her e-mail led me to a key realization—I’m actually giving people something when I write my articles, not just receiving recognition, money, or whatever else.
I recognized that, when I thought about my publishing endeavors, my attention would be fixed on what I was getting out of the publication process, and what others had to do to help me get it. I was placing no attention on what my writing was contributing to the publication or its readers. Of course, when I thought about publishing that way, it seemed like a pretty raw deal for the magazines I submitted articles to. I got to spread my name around and (at least sometimes) get paid, and they had to run through the whole rigmarole of printing my piece. No wonder I felt self-centered and guilty.
When I realized I could actually give others something by publishing, suddenly the process began to feel more inspiring. My productivity and focus in writing magazine articles blossomed, and I no longer felt constricted by the fear of “bothering” or “taking from” editors or the reading public.
Many of us have the hangup I described in at least one area of our lives. We worry that, if we pursue our goals, we’ll be somehow taking from others and giving nothing in return. In essence, we’re afraid that following our dreams might be inconsiderate or selfish. This phenomenon certainly isn’t restricted to career issues—many people live with it, for instance, in their intimate relationships.
Some people, when they’re considering introducing themselves to someone they’re attracted to, place no attention on what they have to offer the other person. Instead, they’re entirely focused on the possibility that they’d bother the other person or make them uncomfortable. They’re fixated, in other words, on what they’d “take,” or the inconvenience they might cause, and not what they can “give.” Not surprisingly, this mindset has them hold back or become nervous as they’re meeting the other person. But when they hold in their awareness the gifts they can bring to a relationship, meeting people can become inspiring and enjoyable again.
In my experience, people with anxiety about public speaking often have similar concerns. They worry that they’re boring or inconveniencing the people they’re speaking to, and thus they’re less confident and articulate than they’d otherwise be. When they turn their attention to the gifts they can bring the audience—the education or entertainment they can provide—suddenly public speaking ceases to feel like such a difficult and stressful exercise.
I believe that, in our deepest essence as human beings, we naturally desire to care for and bestow our gifts on others. This desire is a strong motivator when we’re pursuing our goals in life. Simply remaining conscious of what we’re contributing to the world with our activities does much to dissolve the fears and mental barriers that get in the way of our success. In Unfolding Self: The Practice Of Psychosynthesis, therapist Molly Young Brown aptly describes how connecting with our drive to serve is a powerful source of energy and focus:
When we know ourselves to be most essentially spiritual beings, acting through particular personalities and organisms, we are set free from the fear of selfishness that has plagued the good children of our culture for so long. We truly can trust ourselves! When we plunge deeply into who we are, we discover that we are creatures of great potential who yearn to use our capacities to serve humanity . . . . To be truly Self-centered is to be a giver of gifts to the world.
If you have a goal you’ve wanted to achieve, but you’ve felt restricted by fears of “taking from” or inconveniencing others, I invite you to try this exercise. For a moment, remove your attention from the praise, material things, or anything else you may receive from the activity, and the possibility that others might disapprove of what you do. Instead, focus your attention on the ways what you plan to do would serve the world. Picture the happiness, comfort, productivity, and other gifts you’ll bring into people’s lives.
If you aren’t accustomed to thinking this way, I suspect you’ll be surprised by how motivated and inspired you’ll feel, and how insignificant your fears will appear compared to the joy you can bring others.