Creativity: the most primal instinct of humankind, without it we would not exist. Creation is the work of Zeus, Shiva, and the biblical God — and on particularly productive days when the juices are flowing, creativity can make us humans feel like we exist on their level. It is easy to see why the ecstasy of sex and art are often compared to the ecstasy of heightened religious experience. Coming out of an intense creative session — leaving the recording studio, stepping out of the corner café, shutting off the lights of the workshop — one feels such sweet bliss, the sweetest, the one that arises only when the creative instinct is satisfied.
"It isn't the same as sitting in meditation but it taps me into the present," classical Indian musician Anoushka Shankar told me. "Not when I am playing a fast and wild piece but when I am getting more introverted with my music, there is this feeling when it is coming together and everything is working. It is an incredible uplifting experience."
Even if we are not artists, we are constantly creating. Office managers, chefs, parents, even warlords are pressed to think creatively, and sometimes they do so to the degree of becoming artistic. But we look to the Artist with a capital A to push the outer limits of our understanding. Artists share their view of the world in such a way that alters our own perspective — sharpening, focusing, diffusing, coloring, and in many ways enhancing our own experience. As sculptor Louise Nevelson said, art is everywhere, but it first must pass through a creative mind, it must pass through the filter of an artist.
A freshman art student walking into Figure Drawing 101 faces his first nude. All his filters are called to attention –perception of angles, light, color, perceptions of erotic thrill or disgust, embarrassment, competition, his preconceptions about good and bad art. One of the first things the teacher must do is break these concepts. "Visual data from 'out there' gathered by sight is not the end of the story," writes Betty Edwards in her classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. "At least part and perhaps much of what we see is changed, interpreted, or conceptualized in ways that depend on a person's training, mind set, and past experiences. We tend to see what we expect to see or what we decide we've seen. Learning perception through drawing seems to change this process and to allow a different, more direct kind of seeing."
Meditation masters often speak of filters when discussing our experience of the world at large. The same filters that enhance our experience can be seen as the obstacle to pure perception. That doesn't mean we should step away from art and creativity, almost the opposite. Art can be used as means to purify perception and break habits.
Artist Sanford Biggers explores the potential of meditation as a means to produce art and also by integrating contemplative themes into his work. After living in Japan for some time, Biggers' interest in Buddhism and the Tao began filtering into his work — his impressive urban graffiti art installations rendered in multi-colored sand and destroyed by breakdancers were modeled after Tibetan sand mandalas. His shows are successful but, like many artists, he still found himself questioning what he is doing, why he is doing it and asking "what this is about?"
The answer comes when he finds his bliss. Even prior to his introduction to Vipassana meditation, Biggers found a need to decompress before initiating any work, sometimes just sitting in a chair and staring into space. "Now I realize it is a form of meditation, it's not sleep. I am aware of things. As if when you walk in the door of a studio and sit in that chair, you are walking over the creative threshold. When I get into that decompression and I begin to work, I no longer have those thoughts. My body takes over and says, this is why I do this work. It allows me to get into that zone.'"
Many consider that zone to be an end unto itself. But it could be taken a step further. Get into the coveted zone and then renounce the zone. With the acknowledgment of the essenceless of even seemingly positive experiences of "good" art, the selfishness of the art disappears. Though it would appear antithetical for some artists to pursue egolessness, the rewards can be awesome. "From a spiritual point of view, true creativity means breaking out of the sheath of egocentricity and becoming a new person, or, more precisely, casting off the veils of ignorance to discover the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena," writes Matthieu Ricard in his book Monk Dancers of Tibet. "That discovery is something really new, and the intense, coherent and joyous effort which leads to it is not based on an arbitrary and egocentric attitude. In fact, sacred art is an element of the spiritual path. It takes courage to practice it, because its goal is to destroy the attachment to the ego."
That may be hard for a starlet in Hollywood or an aspiring hip hop star who is counting on this charisma to pay the rent. In many cases, having a persona is considered a positive, think Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna. "I have a lot of sympathy for how screwed up people get in this industry," filmmaker and performance artist Miranda July told me. Her film Me and You and Everyone We Know sent her unto the heat of the spotlight in 2005. "If you start out in a vulnerable place, I can just see that it's like this thing that speeds up the worst possible end to everything.
July is smart and lovely and her charm comes across in the film, in which she also stars. Generally these are all positives but when one's identity becomes collateral, something to be invested in and scrutinized, artists are at risk of becoming acutely, even painfully, aware of themselves. Without a strong internal calm, one can get lost in a maze of external references. As the essential stuff of July's self was fed to the press and served to the audience to laud, criticize, and otherwise dissect, she found herself referring back to skills she learned at a meditation retreat years before.
It is more widely accepted that art is a result of a person's individual expression, his or her attempt to record personal impressions of their experience. But until the dawn of the modern era, most art was religious in nature and was considered as French writer and dramatist André Gide put it, "a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better." The position of the artist was merely a channel for the divine.
I spoke about this with Joachim Pissarro, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and grandson of one of the avatars of impressionism, Camille Pissaro. He told me: "The 17th century academic approach to painting was getting away from one's perception to get to a higher, more significant level of awareness — a moral, religious, ideal whose message it was the task of the artist to transmit. Artists, therefore, had to be wary of their perceptions. To the eyes of the academics, the 19th century impressionists were perceived as being vulgar low lives because they dared pouring out their perceptions on the canvas. Raw perceptions were considered crude artistic materials."
In his 2005 exhibition Pioneering Modern Painting: Cezanne and Pissarro 1865-1885, Pissarro brought the filtering process of the artist into sharp focus. "[Cezanne and Pissarro] were not eliminating individual perception; they were in fact rather highly aware of their own individual perceptions and trying to cultivate them and in that sense they are very much part of the western tradition rather than the eastern traditions. But what is unusual about their situation, and what links with [this discussion], is the fact that they were willing to, and interested in, interacting with each other, confronting the limits of their individual perceptions, opening to each other and to others and in that sense readily available to face their own perception. In that sense they were throwing a bridge between the perspectives of east and west."
Matthieu Ricard describes the gap between the two as such: "In the west, we usually understand creativity to be the expression of the impulses that arise from personal subjective experience. For the contemplative, this approach is not necessarily creative in its fullest sense because that subjective experience itself is limited by basic ignorance. Thus what one considers to be an original creation is often the result of exploring one's habitual tendencies and impulses that maintain the vicious circle of samsara, the wheel of existence. Innovation, as we usually understand it, does not necessarily free us from ignorance, greed or animosity, or make us better, wiser, or more compassionate human beings"
Anoushka Shankar says she is "smack on the middle of the fence" on this issue. "I feel the individual expression of a person is an expression of godliness. That is divine. That is creation," she says. "The constant need to express, that is one of the most beautiful things in world."
Whatever the motivation, meditation, contemplation, and self examination can all play a part in refining those filters. "If you get too distracted, you lose the inborn dignity of our minds," says Khyentse Rinpoche. "So we can choose one object to get distracted by instead of lots of objects. That's shamatha meditation — continuously trying to get distracted by this one chosen designated object. It's a simple technique that makes you sober and sane. You are letting the mind be. In fact for the first time you are using your mind." But he warns if you don't want to renounce the world, you might want to keep a toe in the hot waters of samsara. "You don't want to control your mind 100%, otherwise you will miss out on much of the fun and intrigue. So maybe control 20% and the rest can go wild."
Mere meditation is no match for procrastination, self-sabotage, laziness, the draw of a crack-of-dawn email check that ends up eating the morning, because these are afflictions that arrest both meditation and art. "When I wake up my heart is already racing, the thought that I can check my email calms me down," admits July. But she says, "I know that if instead I meditate, it is much more likely that I will be creative." Such distractions have to be conquered by sheer discipline, which is a mark of most great artists (and great meditators). Creativity and pure perception can be cultivated practically and methodically. In her book The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp boils creativity down to a habit. "The best creativity is a result of good work habits," she says. And such habits require focus of a fierce, religious, devotional nature.
"It hinders me if I come to the table to work with someone and I haven't practiced. I have ideas echoing in my head and can't express them," says Anoushka Shankar. Success to her means being in constant contact with her instrument. "Ritual puts you into the mindset. Warming up, doing those same exercises — the scales — there's something very comforting about that." Such preparation paves the way for the magic to take place. "Then the actual creation happens much better once I am in the space, unplanned."
Sanford Biggers faces his distractions head on. "The daily rigors of life, the constant correspondence with institutions, dealers and collectors — all that is great but it occupies different muscles." Biggers uses the first half of his day "clearing the slate" returning calls paying attention to the administrative side of being an artist so that later he can work uninterrupted, usually late into the night. "It's a good time and I don't feel the distractions that I feel in the day. At night I usually work in silence. It might take a while to get into my work but I don't get distracted."
Judgmentalism is another enemy of the creative state. "I and probably all of us are too far on one extreme," says Miranda July. But she welcomes the contradiction between judging and not judging. When it is positively harnessed, judging contains within it discriminating awareness. But more often it is an obstacle. "The most expectation and pressure I've ever experienced came not during the making of my film but afterwards when it came to promoting it," she says. What had once just been part of her own internal chatter is now being broadcast on Entertainment Tonight and written about in the New York Times. There is no avoiding it. "It really makes me look at that judgmental part of myself because now it has been externalized."
The pressure was a blessing as it sent July back to the meditation cushion. She had long before completed two Vipassana meditation courses but her practice had lapsed. She booked herself a retreat at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, California. "Meditation was basically the one thing I could do that I knew would take care of myself." It took several days for her to align her expectations with reality. "It hit me hard — the tyranny of what I had set up for myself not just there but in the rest of my life — only valuing what is in my head." After a mild crisis and a deep sleep she accepted the pace of the retreat. "Then I was just gentle for the rest of the time. Pretty much since then each week has been a new experience in saying 'I don't know' when people ask me what's next. I am resting. Which is actually much more productive."
One thing the retreat brought into focus was the need for perspective, to take things less seriously. In a sense to renounce the view she had been holding. "When you are working, struggling with a problem, whether its on the set or in writing, usually the solution comes from changing your perspective radically."
Biggers agrees. "I like to operate by putting myself into opposite headspaces so I might hang around with friends who have nothing to do with art and talk about nothing related to art so I feel like a regular citizen."
The implication being that the artistic mind is different after all. "They say we use twelve percent of the mind's capability," says Biggers. "But maybe artists are using an extra one or two per cent. Or maybe we are using a different set of twelve."
"I've realized it is useful to see that everyone is different from each other and I am different in a particular way and not everyone would know how or even want to put themselves through what I do," says July. "It is a particular set of needs and strengths and weakness and it is kind of a relief that not everyone is this way."
And yet we continue to create and destroy and create again.
The children's book Fredrick, written and illustrated by Dutch artist Leo Lionni, resonates with many adults who make their living as artists. In the story, Frederick the mouse sits lazily daydreaming while all the other mice busily prepare for winter in a stone wall at the edge of a farm. They chastise Frederick for making them do all the work and it is true, he seemingly lazes as they collect their nuts and fluff their nests. But late in the winter when the supplies run out and the mice are desperately awaiting signs of spring, Frederick emerges from his half-lidded laze and begins poetically reminded the mice of the joys of spring and summer. The mice are warmed and sustained by his words and finally they appreciate the need for the contemplative in their society.
Within the scriptures, myths, and even books of science and logic, creation is intrinsically linked to destruction. Anything created, anything subject to time and space, is impermanent. One could say creativity elevates us because it has the potential to annihilate us, free us from the mundane "self." In sex, one feels union with other, in religion, ultimate oneness, and in art, as Vincent Van Gogh described, "I put my heart and my soul into my work, and have lost my mind in the process."
A portion of this article, was previously published in the book The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama . Earth Aware Editions (2006).
Image by euart, courtesy of Creative Commons license.