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Some of you may already know how important it is to look inward, read into you, and discover something new about your story. This is, however, easier said than done. According to Art Therapist and and Professor Shaun McNiff, the distress of feeling ‘stuck’ partly comes from having experienced satisfaction in “feelings of potential expression”. In other words, the height of inspiration is what can make the silence of non-expression most demotivating.
Though in context McNiff was speaking about artists and creative block, this feeling is universal and not at all restricted to artists. Ringing true beside the fact that creativity is innate in everyone, you don’t have to be an artist to feel uninspired, longing for a ‘creative streak’, or wanting to feel like you’re ‘on a roll’. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it flow: a “deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.” Flow is the sense of control, clarity, peace, and ease. Who wouldn’t make that the benchmark for their life’s moments?
This feeling comes and goes, and going through an uninspired period is difficult, no matter how you use creativity in daily life: as an artist, for leading a team, for solving day-to-day problems.
The silence and stillness of this period can be deafening, but McNiff invites us to try a kinder and more accepting disposition toward being stuck:
The most reliable way to deal with stuck or inactive conditions is to accept them, understanding they are universal features of the creative process and not something belonging to me alone. Acceptance of what is happening in the moment sets the stage for creative expression to regenerate itself.
Most days, we probably have to learn and re-learn how to accept our limitations and the rhythm of flow, but we have to seek out the openness. Acceptance is an undetected strength that is often overpowered by the noise of disappointment, busyness, and simply trying too hard. It is our pursuit of acceptance that leads us to the strength of openness to our reality. It doesn’t matter how small the moments may be – there is always the deep well of possibility, and the next a-ha moment.
Here are a few things to help anyone through the process of being in-between flows of expression, and of accepting the fullness of the present moment even when it feels dead quiet. Remember to approach these activities with appreciation of process; not at all outcome.
Learn for the first time.
British Artist Leon Kossoff considers his entire career in art as “learning how to draw“. Perhaps, the more knowledgeable you are at something, the more important this is to practise. If you’re stuck, it may mean you need to warm up to a small degree of unlearning what you already know, to reach new and deeper understanding. This isn’t so much about the senses yet, but more a way of being, and a humbling and inspiring way to start the day. Kossoff would wake up in the morning and say, today I might learn how to draw.
Awaken the senses.
“In the creative process we do not just make things: we make ourselves,” McNiff says. Have you ever said something along the lines of, “I’ve put all that I am into that”? When we are creative, we are what we do. A simple way to acknowledge this connection is to engage yourself artfully. Artfully, because the explicitly creative act of expression is what opens up your mind and allows your whole body to feel. Awaken the senses, because your senses connect your thinking mind to your experiential, physical self that navigates your physical environment.
For the eyes: draw by looking
I often struggle with drawing because of the tendency to judge and analyze how well I can copy what I’m seeing. While there is value and often jaw-dropping skill in being able to draw accurately to life, there’s also value in the fluidity of instantaneously making marks according to what you see. This helps tone down the analytical mind that can sometimes hinder creative expression. So: put pencil to paper and draw something right in front of you, without taking your eyes off what you’re drawing. Let your seeing mind alone inform your drawing hand.
For the ears: draw what you hear
Blindfold yourself (or close your eyes) and draw what your ears hear. This exercises spatial awareness and can bring in a new way of taking in your surroundings. Here, your hearing mind informs your drawing hand and you might find you’ll still know where things are, how big they are or whether they are fragile or robust. To maximise this little experience, go somewhere outside where there are natural sounds, or to a bustling place.
For the hand: draw what you touch
Have a friend choose objects with differing textures and place them in opaque bags. Chances are, you’re going to know what’s inside – you don’t have to see a book to know you’re holding one. However, in this exercise, challenge yourself to draw what it feels like, not what you know it is. With your non-dominant hand in the bag, feel your way through drawing whatever you can’t see. How do you draw or make marks that will show something is rough or smooth? When I tried this for the first time, I spent fifteen minutes feeling my way through drawing a leaf.
Write a river.
Write whatever comes to mind. Set a timer of around 10 minutes, catch the first thought and go from there. This will exercise your sense of presence and the need to keep writing will eventually ask your brain to pull out all the stops and start asking other parts of yourself what stories they can tell. What did your hands touch? What are you hearing? How does it feel to sit on a chair? Some people prefer doing this with pen and paper, and that’s always an enriched tactile experience. However, you may also choose to type – there are others who prefer typing because to type is to be quicker in recording fleeting thoughts. 10 minutes not enough? Add another 10!
Whatever you decide to do, it’s helpful to reflect on it afterward. Does it tell you something about your feeling of being stuck? Does it tell you what you’re inspired by at the moment? We’d love to hear from you if you’ve tried these activities, or what you did if you’ve come up with your own.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.
McNiff, Shaun. Imagination in Action: Secrets for Unleashing Creative Expression. Boston: Shambhala, 2015. Print.