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.
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