Creativity from the cushion of insight

I’m just back from a silent retreat. I always find it hard to land after all that silence, hard to ease my way back into the ordinary interactions of everyday. A friend thinks it sounds like solitary confinement, an agony of solitude. For me the silence is restful. But it means I have to peer down into my depths because my mind has nowhere else to go, so down and down it dives into the blackness, or blankness.

You never know what you’re going to find buried down there in the bowels of your being. Sometimes there are treasures but often, old stinking bones get washed up, and fill the inner atmosphere with a stench like rotting fish.

Putrefaction is an aspect of Nigredo, or blackness, in Alchemy, as base matter is transformed into gold. And meditating in silence is a kind of Alchemy, there’s certainly a lot of blackness and dissolution, burning, and sometimes there is a small miracle when that disgusting thing you uncovered on day three is radiated by light, washed clean through gentle attention.


But now that I’ve landed back in my everyday I’m faced with an old dilemma, the same dilemma I always have with meditation practice; I don’t know how to maintain the same devotion to my creative practice and meditate regularly. I don’t know if other people have this problem, I’ve never asked anyone.

Serious meditators sit first thing in the morning when the mind is most peaceful, before the day breaks in and crowds the thinking. If I meditate first thing, my mind goes quiet, everything dissolves on the gentle ocean of my becoming, my breath arising and passing away. I hold onto nothing, that’s the idea of meditation.

But I always write first thing in the morning, that’s when my creativity is most alive, vibrant, as if I’ve been visited by my wild soul, my essential creativity, during the night. She leaves a trail of small nuggets of gold, or sometimes tough little scats, for me to pick up, sniff and write down if I can open them. Some remain a mystery and I just carry them around in my pocket for a few days, weeks, sometimes years, hoping they will reveal themselves. But when I meditate first thing all that rich juicy material left by my wild soul is washed away.


What to do?

I always choose my creative practice over my meditation practice, and meditate later in the day, or after I’ve captured that first flush of creativity. But my commitment to meditation fades over time, because it gets plonked into my day when I have time. This push-pull between meditation and creativity has gone on for years.

Only now at last can I accept that my creative practice is the heart of my path into self knowing, or maybe a kind of spiritual path. Creativity is my spiritual practice. If that’s what you could call my meandering-wondering tracking through the terrain of my psyche – my soul – with pen in hand, or laptop these days, writing down the wild and weird things that arise, as they arise, even when I can’t make sense of them. Yes it is a kind of meditation, unholy meditation. It requires tracking with curiosity and wonder.

Even though I know meditation is good for me, and I should do it, it falls under the shadow of my creative practice every time.

Regular meditation practice frees the mind of the fetters and chains that entrap us, allowing us to open our heart and mind to new possibilities. Creative practice can also do that. All wisdom I have gained through meditation is also accessible through sustained creative practice. For instance my concentration deepens when I sit to write, as it does when I sit to meditate.

Returning to the wisdom of the Buddha, the core of the teachings; Anicca (impermanence), Dukkha (suffering through attachment), Anatta (no self), they all emerge in creative practice if you commit to regular practice, and if you are willing and able to see.

The creative practice I’m talking about is non-attached creativity, a living process of emergence that’s not focused on outcome but on process. It requires non attachment to outcomes or what is produced, and instead invites surrendering deeply to the process, allowing it come through you, emerge and then pass away. Continually moving onto the next and then the next wave, or diving deeper and deeper into something, like falling into love. And letting yourself be surprised by what emerges; “trusting emergence” as Gregory Kramer (Insight Dialogue) calls it.

Becoming attached to what you are making, or trying to replicate what you did so perfectly last year or even last week, is suffering (Dukkha). Instead creative practice invites you to keep letting go, leaning in and opening up, exploring what is arriving with a deep curiosity, that evolves into an ever widening circle of curiosity.

You forget yourself, lose yourself in the practice, whether it’s writing or painting, photography or printmaking, dancing or singing, there is no you, and no other, you become the dance, the writing, or the brush marking the canvas. There is no separation between you and what you are doing (no self) only the emergence of what is coming into creation. It is life emerging through you.

And each time you get lost or overwhelmed you come back to the body. The body is the foundation. All creativity is ultimately grounded, expressed in the body. The writer sits with pen in hand, or tapping on the keyboard, and transforms ideas into words, small black shapes on a page that another can see and know through descriptions of sensory experience. The painter holds the brush and makes marks on a canvas that gives form to their vision. The dancer moves her body to express the music or feeling or gesture of an idea.

We create through the body, with the body. The vision of the creator offers a different worldview, a new possibility, made accessible, even familiar, to others, shared through the senses.

The senses land things in the body, they become real. While they remain abstract ideas they float around in the mind and remain lost amongst the flotsam and jetsam of thinking and confusion. Creative practice requires grounding your ideas, giving form to the formless, naming and creating something that till now was only imagined, and making it real so it can be shared, seen, heard, touched, tasted, loved or perhaps reviled.

The same is true of the wisdom of insight meditation, which comes, not as a concept but through moment-to-moment observations of body experience. It is body wisdom, bottom up wisdom (lower brain), which is also how the brain changes itself, and integrates old traumatic and overwhelming experiences.

So my creative practice is my meditation. I’ve had to face myself in my writing as much or more as I’ve ever had to face myself on the meditation cushion. And I’ve experienced states of bliss and freedom in creativity as I have in meditation, when the light of understanding pours through and radiates everything.

Both paths – meditation and creativity – require devoted practice, and patience. Often not much happens for long periods except the effortless effort of devotion to what you love, even when it’s hard. Coming to the page, or coming to the cushion, diligently persisting with no guarantees of any outcome, reward, or even enlightenment.

For the next few months I’ll do both. And maybe one day the two will become one. But for the moment my creative practice is the larger, pushing everything back from the foreshore as I dive into my inner life, whether I penetrate the sublime or swim through an ocean of stinking fish.

(Photo taken at UNE Armidale)


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