Battling Resistance

Since I took yesterday off, I told myself I would sit down to write first thing this morning.  Before getting to my desk, though, I did the following:

  • Cleaned up the dirty dishes in the kitchen
  • Got a load of laundry started
  • Set my kids clothes out for the day
  • Made the beds
  • Scrolled through Facebook
  • Ate breakfast
  • Drank two cups of coffee, slowly
  • Put my daughter’s hair up in a ponytail
  • Went through the hall closet sorting shoes to give away or toss
  • Had my kids try on their winter boots to see if they still fit

In other words, many tasks took precedent over my daily goal to sit down and write.

During yesterday’s readathon, I finally got to Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which has been on my list to read for a while.  For me, the most helpful part of Pressfield’s book was his characterization of Resistance—that which keeps us from creating, growing, learning and evolving as human beings.

Two of the most intriguing points Pressfield made about Resistance were:

  • “Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.”  (See my list above.)  “What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true.”  (The majority of tasks on my list above needed to get done.)  But, Pressfield insists, we can do what needs to be done and do our work.  Resistance just does a good job of convincing us that everything on our to-do list is more important than our creative work and therefore must come first.
  • Pressfield introduced me to the Principle of Priority, which states: “a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and b) you must do what is important first.” What’s important, Pressfield wants us to hear, is the work—the daily, creative work to which we are called that makes us and the world better.  “That’s the game we have to suit up for every day,” Pressfield writes, “that’s the field on which we need to leave everything we’ve got.”

I also appreciated Pressfield’s description of what Resistance feels like.  As a writer, he wakes up “with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction.  Already, I feel fear.  Already, the loved ones around me are starting to fade.  I interact.  I’m present.  But I’m not.  I am aware of Resistance.  I feel it in my guts.  I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.”

This daily battle with Resistance resonates because it has beaten me so many times, allowing me to excuse myself from my writing.  Pressfield’s clear characterization of Resistance is helpful, then, in discerning what the enemy looks and feels like, as well as the weapons Resistance uses against us.  Resistance keeps us from being the creators we were always meant to be.

 

Intentionally Blank

In an article from The Write Practice, Jeff Elkins offers tips on how to find your “Thoughtful Spot.” This is a trick, Elkins writes, that he learned from Winnie the Pooh. “His Thoughtful Spot was a log under a tree marked by a sign that read, ‘Pooh’s thotful spot.’ It was the place where Pooh did his best thinking. It was where he got his inspiration when his well ran dry.”

After reading this article, I wandered across campus to one of my Thoughtful Spots, our college’s art gallery. I love walking through this gallery—slowly, attentively—when no one else is around. As I move from piece to piece my mind clears of the to-do list that has been oppressing me. I feel myself softening and opening in that creative space as I consider and contemplate the art. How did the artist create this piece? What inspired her? What materials did he use and why did he choose this medium? What does this piece mean to the artist? What does it mean to me?

Then I came to this piece, entitled, “Training” by my artist friend Stephanie Baugh.

image

I love Stephanie’s collages. She pulls together images that always give me pause. This piece, in particular, caught my attention because of the white label with the words, “Intentionally Blank” typed in bold, capital letters. This sticker placed in the sky above the contemplative figurines seemed playful and humorous. It made me smile. It also reminded me of an important lesson I have learned through my meditation and writing practices: I need to make space for new thoughts and ideas to emerge. I need to find my way to “thoughtful spots.” I need to calm and clear my frantic, monkey-mind that climbs every distraction. I need to set aside my oppressive to-do list and clear away the clutter if I want the Muse (or as I like to call her, the Holy Spirit) to move and speak. I recently heard a writer say that we have to serve the Muse, if we want the Muse to serve us. This means giving Her our time and attention, clearing space for Her, leaving a part of ourselves intentionally blank, so we can receive what She offers. Our creative well will continue to run dry if we are not intentional about this practice.

In the Valley of the Creative Process

IMG_6048

I am in the middle of writing my sermon for our upcoming Baccalaureate service. I have a great beginning, a muddled mess for a middle and no conclusion. Yet the day is fast approaching when I must deliver this creative work. So I am feeling anxious.

Last week I listened to a podcast on “Overcoming Creative Roadblocks” that hit home. During this podcast, Todd Henry talked about the creative process as having a U shape. Any sort of work you have to do, or project you want to complete is like a hike down into a valley. You start out on one side and looking across you can see the other side clearly. You can see your objective. Over there across the valley the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. It sure is going to be great when you get there. So you set off with all the momentum inspiration brings in the beginning.

ImageThen you get to the bottom of the valley and here your objective is obscured. Things get confusing. You can’t see as well. Maybe the trees are thicker here, the path becomes treacherous and you’re approaching the uphill climb. You start to hear scary animal noises and you wonder if you’re going to make it out of this valley alive. You start to question yourself, your sense of direction, your intuition. Should I have even started this journey to begin with? Things don’t look good right now.

According to Henry, we often tell ourselves that the most difficult part of a creative project is getting started—all I have to do is get started and then the rest will just come, we think. Or we tell ourselves that the hardest part is finishing the project, getting to that place of completion. But, Henry asserts, the truth is that the hardest part of any worthwhile endeavor is when you are right in the middle. Because here, in the middle, is where fear and self-doubt arise. You start telling yourself things like: I can’t do this. This is impossible. I suck at preaching. Things that are, in reality, only minor obstacles appear to us here, in the valley, as huge and disastrous. My outline isn’t working. I’m doomed! My printer is jammed. God has cursed me!

So what we need here is motivation to keep going, to keep pushing ourselves forward. We need narratives in our head that aren’t based in fear or self-doubt. We need a way to positively confront the hurdles we meet when we get to this place.

It is here, in this valley of the creative process, where I find myself relying most on my faith. In fact, if I did not have faith when I got to this valley, then I think I would probably quit. Instead, I have come to trust that if I give the Spirit enough space and time, if I work hard and open myself to where the Spirit is leading me, then eventually God will guide me up and out of this valley.

A friend introduced me to a poem called “The Woodcarver” written by Chuang Tzu and translated by Thomas Merton. It has become one of my favorites. I keep a few lines of it taped over my desk so I can see it whenever I find myself discouraged or in need of inspiration. The poem tells the story of a master woodcarver who was asked by a Prince to carve a bell stand. The bell stand he produced was beautiful, so beautiful that everyone who saw it said it must have been made by spirits. When the Prince asked the Woodcarver to tell him how he produced something so beautiful, this is what he said:

I am a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

Then I went to the forest
to see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

At this point in my sermon writing process there are lots of dangerous distractions, intimidating thoughts, self-defeating messages swirling around. The Woodcarver reminds me to guard my spirit, to stay true to the task of preaching God’s Word, to open myself to the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and meditation, so I can climb out of this valley with a worthwhile, meaningful message for our graduating class. It will be two more weeks until this Baccalaureate pilgrimage comes to its conclusion. May God guide you in all the creative work to which you have been called, as I pray the Spirit guides me in mine.

 

[Feature Image:  Jeff Turner]

 

Practice, Practice, Practice

309683769_4e8749343b_o“We are always practicing, until the very end,” writes Brenda Miller in her book The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. I admit, in such a performance-driven world, the idea that we are always practicing gives me comfort. So what if I don’t preach my absolute best sermon at our upcoming Baccalaureate Service. It is good practice for the next time. So what if I never get that essay published that I worked so hard on. It was good practice to write it. When I sit with my students to lead them in meditation I always begin by saying, “Don’t worry about getting this right or doing this perfectly, we are just practicing.” Saying this seems to relieve tension present in the room. The invitation to practice is an invitation to offer ourselves some grace, because if we get it wrong we are still okay.

Miller goes on to discuss practice as an end in itself, as the discipline that brings us to life. She quotes Kim Stafford who says that a violin, played every day, will keep the vibrations of the music in its body, even while lying still and silent. If it is not played every day, the vibrations dissipate and the wood grows lifeless. An instrument dies if not played daily.

This is true for so many things. If I do not practice good parenting, or practice being a good wife every single day, then I imagine my relationships would not sing with life. Instead, they would grow stale and distant. If I did not practice my Christian faith, then that faith would cease to offer me life or new opportunities for growth. When I am diligently practicing my writing and intentionally tapping into my creativity, the muse of inspiration flows more easily. Life is rich with creative inspiration, when I am practicing.

Miller concludes her chapter on practicing with this contemplative exercise:

Reflect on what you practiced as a child. How did you feel about it? Was practice something you dreaded or embraced? What did you practice today? Think about all the skills and habits of mind you practice each day—and how those practices make you who you are.

 

[Feature Image: Kate]

The Artist and the Art: A Theological Relationship

Stephanie Baugh

Stephanie Baugh “Wanderlust”

Sometimes, when I feel creatively dry, I venture over to our college’s art gallery in search of inspiration. Yesterday morning I made this excursion with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Essential Writings tucked under my arm.

Upon entering the gallery I paused first to scan through the binder that held the resumes and statements of the artists. The statement of my friend and colleague, Stephanie Baugh, caught my attention immediately. She wrote:

I am interested in the felt experience of small and quiet aspects of life. I am curious about how we can lay meaning and import over activities that are often seen as mundane or merely practical. I regularly spend time in reflection about my experiences or about states of mind in which I find myself. I give these reflective thoughts form as artworks. The process of creating the artworks extends my examination of the conditions of my consciousness and how I encounter the world.”

9348489_orig

Stephanie Baugh “Philosophy”

I resonated with Stephanie’s desire to pay attention to “the small and quiet aspects of life” as well as the meaning she finds as she creates. I have often said that I don’t know what I know until I write it out. There seems to be, then, something extraordinary about the act of creating—how through it we come to know ourselves and our world in a more profound and intimate way. There’s something mystical about this act of creation. Something wholly “other” as we surrender to the muse and follow wherever she leads. And apparently where she leads is often to a new version of ourselves.

Stephanie concludes:

“It is not only that I am making art; the art is also making me.”

In the introduction of the book tucked underneath my arm, I have underlined and tabbed a particularly interesting passage. Here Abraham Joshua Heschel’s daughter writes:

“Like his Hasidic forbears, my father turned religious assumptions upside down. It is not just that we are in search of God, but that God is in search of us, in need of us. We are objects of divine concern.”

The idea that God is in need of us is somewhat startling, but also intriguing. How might God need us? If God does need us, what would God not be able to do or be without us?

Because these questions arose in an art gallery I began to contemplate God’s role as a creator and maker. God’s art clearly includes us. We are an element of God’s beautiful creation. If what Stephanie and Heschel say is true—“I make the art, and the art makes me” and “God needs us”—then does our art, our acts of creation, somehow make God? Are we so entwined—Creator and created, art and artist, that we influence and inspire and even evolve each other? Do we feed off each other’s creations?

Walking slowly around the gallery I imagined God in that space as well. What might God create after pausing to gaze at  “Balance”?

326157_orig

Stephanie Baugh “Balance”

Where might the muse lead God after contemplating the aspects of “Present.”

Stephanie Baugh

Stephanie Baugh “Present”

I left the gallery abuzz with ideas and energy—my brain playing with all the new questions in my mind. The sun warmed my body as I walked across campus brightening the trees, the grass, the white cement of the sidewalk beneath my feet. Everything in that sunshine was more beautiful. It was as if God had been inspired, even as God was inspiring.

 

 

 

The Way I Share My Soul with the World

mza_7403266694935537377.170x170-75Today is International Podcast Day—another one of those random “days” that I would not have known about had it not been for Twitter. Generally, #podcastday would not have mattered to me had I not wanted to blog about a new podcast I recently discovered. I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons whenever I can. Through these podcasts she coaches women on developing their creativity and interviews a variety of successful artists. In Episode 12 of this podcast she interviews Brene Brown and they have this exchange:

Gilbert: What does creativity mean to you?

Brown: If you’d asked me five years ago what creativity means to me, I would have said, Ha. That’s cute. That’s fun. I don’t really do a lot of A-R-T because I’ve got a J-O-B. So you go grab your paintbrush and your scrapbooking, but I’ve got to get shit done.  But if you would ask me now, though, I would say that creativity is the way I share my soul with the world and without it I am not okay.

I resonated with the journey Brene Brown’s statement reflects. For so many years of my life I simply did not have time to nurture my creativity because I had to get shit done. Things changed for me, though, when I was trying to decide whether or not to begin my work with my writing coach, Christine Hemp. I heard myself saying to Christine over the phone, everything’s better when I am writing. This was when it clicked for me. I had to do this creative work. I had to make writing a priority in my life. It wasn’t selfish. It wasn’t just for me. It was bigger than me.

In the podcast, Brown and Gilbert go on to discuss all the shame associated with creativity. Brown said that 85% of the men and women she interviewed for her research on shame remember an event in school that was so shaming it changed how they thought of themselves for the rest of their lives. Tragically, 50% of the 85% had shame wounds around creativity. They had been told they couldn’t sing, looked stupid dancing, or “Read your essay, don’t quit your day job.”  Brown called these “art scars.”

Acknowledging what I know—that I am a better person, mother, spouse, pastor when I give my creativity room to dance—helps me ward off this shame. I am intentional now about making room for it in my life. I schedule it into my work calendar. I make an appointment with my writing. And the rest of the day benefits from that time of soul work.

So if you need a little creative inspiration. Check out Gilbert’s podcast and start nurturing your soul.

 

 

 

 

It is Solved by Walking, or Stair Climbing

16451260905_747f81dc91_oLast week I had no idea what to blog about until I went to the gym. After ten minutes on the stair climber, I had my idea. Fifteen minutes later on the elliptical trainer I had Three Lessons from a Productive Summer outlined in a note-taking app on my cell phone. Actually, I had ten lessons outlined. Seven got cut after realizing I had plenty to write about three. One of the lessons that got cut was going to be: when you have no idea what to write about, go to the gym. In the end, I decided this lesson deserved its own post.

Not long after my inspiring workout, I happened upon a Facebook post by my friend Heidi, the Vicar of Bolingbrook. Her post said simply, “It is solved by walking (Solvitur ambulando).” Intrigued, I followed the thread of comments and discovered that the quote is credited to Diogenes, a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynicism. Apparently, in response to the question of whether motion is real, Diogenes got up, walked and said, “It is solved by walking.” Later in the thread, a friend of Heidi’s posted this excellent article by Arianna Huffington in the Huffington Post about the virtues of a good long walk–one of those virtues being creative inspiration. Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Ernest Hemingway is noted for “thinking something out” while walking along the quays. And Henry David Thoreau described walking as the “enterprise and adventure of the day.”

To this celebration of walking, I would add stair climbing, elliptical training, or jogging. Any kind of rhythmic, physical movement focuses my mind and taps into the most creative parts of my brain. Ideas just come when I exercise.

Unfortunately, I always seem to forget this important lesson of creativity until it happens to me again. So this blog post will serve as a my reminder. The next time I get creatively stuck, I’m going to lace up my favorite, hot pink, Merrell Pace Gloves and hit the gym or the pavement. Because odds are, I’ll find the inspiration I need while in motion.

 

[Feature Image: Lower Columbia College]