salmon-mind and stream-ing

 

Reflections on creativity, flow, and the not-always-gentle art of unlearning.

Ohara Koson: Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e

Invitations – via courses, retreats and workshops – to “learn how to be in creative flow” are as ubiquitous as those promising “breakthrough experiences of awakening”.  I’ve been around both ballparks long enough to have become very sceptical of these claims and promises.  Red herrings are strong swimmers and prolific breeders. Especially when their favourite tucker – yummy money – is flowing.

Can creativity be taught?  Can “awakening” ever be an experience?  These questions are intimately related but I’ll focus on the first one, since this blog is primarily about art and creativity.

My experience, both within my own practice and as a teacher of visual language, constantly confirms that genuine creativity can unfold only when there’s an abandonment of everything one has learned about it.

I am trying to check my habits of seeing,
to counter them for the sake of greater freshness.
I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.
– John Cage

It seems to me there are two types of “flow”, but only one is truly creative.  One occurs when I’ve slipped into an eddy of old patterns and processes – those that brought me pleasure and profit in the past.  I know where I’m going; it’s easy.  It might even make me feel satisfied that I’ve had a good day in the studio – for a while.  I call this type “phony-flow” for obvious reasons.

Then there’s the other kind of “flow”, the kind that’s hard to write about because you weren’t there when it was underway.  It involves encounters and experiences with the Unknown, and a kind of gracious movement that is closer to stream-ing. When you look at what was created during the movement – whatever your mode of expression might be – what you see astonishes you.  You know without a shadow of doubt that you didn’t do it.  And yet you recognize that this is your most authentic work.

I don’t really trust ideas, especially good ones.
Rather I put my trust in the materials that confront me,
because they put me in touch with the unknown.
It’s then that I begin to work…
when I don’t have the comfort of sureness and certainty.
– Robert Rauchenberg

Creativity, by definition, implies a leap from the known to the unknown.  It is not the same as innovation, which has its feet firmly planted in the familiar.  Nor is it the same as invention, which implies a desired outcome or end product.  It has no pedagogy or curriculum.  There are no maps of the territory.  The only strategy we can employ, if we are earnest enough, is that of finding out what sabotages its natural expression.*

Whatever I know how to do, I’ve already done.
Therefore I do what I do not know how to do.

– Eduardo Chillida

~

I am always doing that which I cannot do,
in order that I may learn how to do it.
– Pablo Picasso

So my personal reaction to courses claiming to cultivate skills to access creative flow isn’t an enthusiastic one. I’m just not interested in exploring notions others might have (no matter what their pedigree) of ways to free my inner artist.  If anything is called for on my via creativa it’s the exile of that artist-ego with its accumulation of ideas, certainties, and its insatiable need for recognition.

Using the metaphor of a stream, it’s easy to understand that “flow” only moves downstream.  And as everyone knows, the source is always upstream.  Floating along in the flow is fine; it’s recreational and maybe allows a brief escape from stress – witness the huge popularity of doodle-books and colouring-in books.  There’s a place for this, of course, but let’s not kid ourselves that we’re being genuinely creative.

Remember, a dead fish can float down a stream,
but it takes a live one to swim upstream.
– W.C. Fields

If you ache for the authenticity, the unknowable and artist-vaporising creativity of the Source, forget about flow.  Abandon the “how-to” red herrings.

Adopt salmon-mind.  Make your way upstream.  You know the way – it’s imprinted in your cells.

Leap those rapids. Outwit those hungry bears.

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful,
the more narrowly I limit my field of action
and the more I surround myself with obstacles.
– Richard Diebenkorn

How do we fuel our quest upstream? By dismissing irrelevancies (as Buckminster Fuller advised); by finding the questions that have no rational answers yet haunt us nevertheless. By spending a great deal of time in solitude and silence watching the mind’s desperate and insistent groping for certainty, affirmation, context. By the way of unlearning; by abandonment of our pet theories and preferences. Our courage in this quest will inevitably deliver us to the sweet dark pool of ultimate unknowing, and, worn out from the challenges to our sureties, we’ll drop our eggs.  We’ll sink.  The Source will reclaim its own.

Our eggs will hatch, some of them, and be swept downstream to spread the news: it is possible!  It is possible to return to the Source and leave the old life there.  It is possible to dissolve into the stream as it makes its way to the Ocean; to rest in and as its stream-ing, as its authentic expression, without any concern for or notion of, whether we’re “being creative” or not. (If that question is still arising… keep swimming upstream.)

Then we can speak of “flow” – because we’ve experienced that it’s exactly what we are. The one who thought they could (or couldn’t) find it, could tap it for artistic purposes, could promote it or become an expert and sell it – that one was the saboteur all along.

Until salmon-mind set it free.

I find my paintings by working on them…
…it is through the making of the paintings that I have many discoveries
which are different from ideas.

~

Painting is a long road.
The beauty to me is in the not knowing where one is going.

~

Perhaps we do not need to understand it all.
– Lawrence Carroll

 


* My series of e-books empty canvas – wondering mind was compiled with this mission in mind.


Image: Ohara Koson 1877 – 1945, Leaping Salmon in a Rapid, Ukiyo-e, 1910


From the bookshelf: Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson


Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world

Agnes Martin: I paint with my back to the world.
The last word.


 

all finite things reveal infinitude

 

All finite things reveal infinitude:

the mountain with its singular bright shade

like the blue shine on the freshly frozen snow,

the after-light upon ice-burdened pines;

odor of basswood upon a mountain slope,

a scene beloved of bees; silence of water…

– Theodore Roethke

 

Imagine my surprise to discover that artist, writer and poet Claire Beynon now lives in my hometown – Dunedin, Aotearoa New Zealand – the very city I could not, as a teenager, wait to escape – lured by the attractions of life and culture in North America and Europe. She moved there from Cape Town – living and working nowadays in a gracious old villa overlooking the Otago harbour. What a wonderful addition she is to the cultural fabric of this nowly buzzing city.

Claire’s blog . . . all finite things reveal infinitude . . . is one of my cherished oases of nourishment. I go there for sublime poetry – her own as well as others’, for insightful new thoughts on old topics and artists’ work, for sneak previews of her own works-in-progress, and for an ever-reliable, refreshing, immersion in wonderment.

 

Painting by Claire Beynon
The Stilled Thread of Flight
Oil & steel strings on canvas

Making art is a way for me to connect the physical and spiritual worlds. It is also a means of establishing connections between people and place.

The foundation of it all is not having to know where I am going. I have to trust that there is something out there and in here that will connect. This trust leads my hand to make visible what is invisible. I start out with nothing. The process itself leads me and at some point along the way, I almost always look back and say “ah”.

… when I work, the work takes me to the necessary place of stillness and calm that is essential to my overall wellbeing. Whilst there, trust is like a fountain that energizes me and fills me up. I find I often create visual compositions that counter the outer chaos. Curiously, the more chaos and busyness there is in my outer world, the quieter and more balanced things seem to become in my internal worlds and the steadier and clearer my work becomes. TS Eliot wrote: “At the still point of the turning world is the dance…”  I reflect on these words often.

Excerpts from a conversation with Lawson Bracewell

www.clairebeynon.co.nz
 

Claire Beynon's blog: . . . all finite things reveal infinitude . . .

 


art and awakening

 

Brody Neuenschwander - Library of Babel

 

getting past the words

Words are wonderful when they serve as pointers.  The problem is that we tend to ascribe ‘realness’ or ‘thingness’ to words, forgetting their sole function as symbols representing shared concepts.  In order to get beyond the word it’s necessary to plant one’s feet firmly within its accepted meaning, and then explore what that meaning might be pointing towards.  Art and awakening are two words that are hot potatoes for some reason, and without signing up for the task I seem to have had a default preoccupation with both concepts all my life.  This little essay tries to express what I’ve learned, or rather what I’ve unlearned.

I’ll begin with a couple of definitions:

art
putting things in their ‘right’ place, in order, in the spot where they sing with a rightness independent of one’s cultural conditioning; a cellular-level rightness which is somehow recognized by the body.

awakening
the irreversible apperception that no independent entity exists who could possibly awaken or become enlightened, or be other than whatever this is, here and now.

Art – art as that creative process of finding the ‘right’ place, rather than the art product – was a consuming passion for the first half of my life.  Hey, I even married (and un-married) a guy called Art, and he’s as passionate about creating as I am!  It’s likely that my later pre-occupation with the concept of ‘awakening’ was seeded in the magical experiences that occurred within the creative context, but its flowering would only happen later in life, when concerns with career paths faded.

health and creativity

During the decades spent teaching art and design and immersed in creative practice in my studio, it became obvious to me that overall health in human beings appears to be nurtured, fostered and sustained by enthusiasm and wonder, accompanied by the urge to move, to make.

Finding one’s health (wholeness), purpose, self-esteem and fulfillment seems to depend on these qualities, and artistic work – perhaps more than most other activities – offers a portal through which they may be accessed.  Developing and refining artistic skills which cultivate and express these qualities would surely be the aim of a curriculum for art and design education in a holistic context.

Experiencing Life as a work of art is possible when the process of creating becomes a consciously-held intention, a matrix within which we refine our focus on the details of that which we desire to create. But these are merely fancy words until we come to understand who or what we truly are within the big picture – the macromatrix.  That’s where awakening comes in.

loving what-is

Understanding and healing occur when there is acceptance and appreciation of the what-is of our Life. Love for our Life returns us to Wholeness.  In that Wholeness we wake up from the myth that we were ever separate from the Wholeness – which brings a huge new understanding.  We know that there cannot be, logically or rationally, anything apart from Wholeness, and consequently, that we cannot possibly exist as a separate, independent entity.  We are that Wholeness.  Enthusiasm and wonder arise spontaneously, and we are compelled to create and celebrate as they bathe our perception of the world and its “ten thousand things”.

free-will?

Our desire is the desire of Wholeness.  Our creations are the creations of that Wholeness.  Free-will is something we pretend to ‘have’.  But since there’s no separate entity apart from Wholeness, the will that appears to be ‘ours’ and ‘free’ is in fact the will of the Wholeness.  The will of Wholeness, or Creation, is energy – ubiquitous, amoral and impartial energy.  It is ceaselessly moving and ceaselessly making.  We say it moves according to ‘our’ thoughts.  We say we must change, or focus ‘our’ thoughts in order to create what we wish.  But what we come to understand is that the impulse which seems to be attributable to ‘me’ is (without permission or control) doing all the things we used to take credit or blame for!  Impulse, intention, focus and application of ‘will power’ are all actions of the Wholeness that we are.  And whatever is created via those actions is created by Wholeness.

art is a way

Will is happening, will cannot not happen so long as there are conscious emanations of Wholeness (called sentient beings) being Lived by that Wholeness.  Life’s ex-pression of Wholeness is the only valid description of authentic art.  We exist to express this Wholeness, and art is a Way.  A way-less way, if you like – for the ultimate art is the realization that there is no artist and no way.

The activities that have always interested me most in the art room or studio are those that, rather than providing a pathway for the production of a certain kind of image, are simply explored as a mirror that reflects my assumptions, habits and notions about myself, about art, and about life.  Because these are the only things that obscure the truth of one’s being.  The approaches to that truth are as varied and numerous as there are participants in the playground.  And the truly creative curriculum in the arts will be a resource of ways to explore the most remarkable, miraculous fact that can ever be known:  the wonder of being alive and the recognition that one is no-thing other than that alive-ness.

Awakening is just precisely that.

awareness

Awareness in healthy humans is what allows the capacity for and sense of alive-ness.  Alive-ness cannot be cultivated – it is surely there or not, and if it’s not, you won’t be reading this.  Awareness likewise cannot be cultivated, since, try as we might, we cannot find it!  Yet it is always present.

The presence of Awareness is only obscured by the noise of our notions and opinions about everything. Making things is a wonderful way of meeting these notions.  Awareness itself then performs the remarkable deed of dissolving these hindrances, seemingly opening itself up to more sense of itself. Heightened awareness of all the worlds assumed to be real – both outwardly and in the hidden recesses of the mind – inevitably opens up new perspectives on life, and, if there is ripeness, awakening might ‘happen’.

Without a whisper of will, without a trace of trying, life awakens to itself and knows itself as naked Knowingness.

Without a name, belonging to no person,
with no history, no future, containing nothing,
without preferences, abhorring nothing, needing nothing,
being no-thing:

that no-thing from which all things arise

THAT
which lies beyond the words

 


Image credit: Library of Babel by Brody Neuenschwander


creating from wonder 3

 

This is the final of three brief extracts from book eight – creating from wonder – in my series of free e-books: empty canvas : wondering mind


In her book The Quantum Self, Danah Zohar posits that creativity is the dynamic of unfolding consciousness. If, as she proposes, the unfolding consciousness of reflecting human beings forms the bridge between the contemporary world with its fragmentation, alienation, inhumanity, and the “reconciled universe” of coherence, integration and meaning, then it is clear that we need to stop ignoring the beckoning call of creative acting and thinking. We need to start asking some “What if …?” questions about what we presume creativity to be, and why we aren’t able to experience it in a sustained way in every aspect of our lives. There are few better ways of doing that than by engaging in practical encounters with the processes involved in looking, seeing and making.

creating from wonder brings to synthesis all the experiences we’ve had as we moved through the previous 8 books in the empty canvas – wondering mind series. It closes the circle. It brings us back to the wonder of perception and to the space in which that-which-is can speak. But we arrive there richer in every way – richer in insight, in technique, and in our ability to play with the unfamiliar. The empty canvas is our lover, at last.

We have thought hard, questioned hard, and played hard. Now we can bring our new perceptions and perspectives to larger projects – projects that unfold from the activities of the previous chapters. We have established some basic ways of looking and working that we can apply to themes, without being blinded by their abstract qualities or our notions of what we ought to do.

There are fourteen projects in creating from wonder. How you choose to approach them is up to you. They don’t follow any sequence, but you’ll notice that they each relate, in some way, to one (or more) of the previous books. You could start at the first one and work your way through the lot, or simply pick and choose those that have some special appeal. Any of these projects make good workshop activities – they can be explored as deeply as you are inclined to dig, and since there are no ideal outcomes, the need for an authoritative leader is redundant.

The projects:

1  unfold your myth
2  veritable vestments
3  Buddha-body
4  the heart of the story
5  animated grey matter
6  a sanctuary for the secret senses
7  playing with process
8  metaphorically speaking
9  objets trouvés
10  deconstructing and recycling
11  shape-shifting
12  quantum realities
13  culture and creativity
14  the three questions

– miriam louisa simons


e-books
creating from wonder 1
creating from wonder 2


creating from wonder 2

 

This is the second of three brief extracts from book eight – creating from wonder – in my series of free e-books: empty canvas : wondering mind


Marvel and wonder go hand-in-hand, and their offspring is true learning. One of the most exciting things about the kind of activity that occurs in the art room, (the educating art room), is that it is firmly grounded in experimental processes. We are, as novice or professional artisans, deeply involved in both wonder and wondering.

Questions are the life-blood of the artisan, and the prime question in any artisan’s mind is “What if …?”  This is a question that makes many parents and teachers wince.  At the same time, it’s the one that generates exploration and experimentation in the fields of science, sports, philosophy – what area of human endeavor can be excluded from its penetrating, “But perhaps…”?

The “What if …?” of wondering mind is the fuel for any investigation into creativity.

 

blindmen

Blind Men on a Log Bridge
By Hakuin Ekaku
(The Gitter Collection)

Hakuin’s painting is a beautiful depiction of the creative process.

Two blind travellers are crossing a river on a bridge made from a floating log. Imagine the courage, the focus, the risk! Arms reach out to probe for stability, feet follow one tentative step at a time. Balance is maintained, but only by ruthless presence in the moment. What if a wave rolls the log ? What if it is flooded over? What if someone is approaching? What if it’s too short, too narrow, too rotten?

The blind men just keep going.

This is so often the way we feel when faced with the empty canvas. We struggle to find a foothold. We feel we haven’t a clue as to what we’re doing or where we’re going.

Well, the good news is that this is exactly how we will feel, if genuine creative expression is our priority.
[Continued…]

– miriam louisa simons


e-books
creating from wonder 1
creating from wonder 3


creating from wonder 1

 

This is the first of three brief extracts from book eight – creating from wonder – in my series of free e-books: empty canvas : wondering mind


wonder is a wonderful word to wonder about:
wonderful – wondrous – a wonder – with wonder – to wonder – wondering –
to do wonders – wonderland – wonderment – wonder-worker – wonderstruck…

We can talk about wonder and wondering in so many ways – it’s one of those English words that baffle foreign language students.  We call something ‘a wonder’ when it is an astonishing thing or accomplishment like the Seven Wonders of the World, or when it is miraculous like the birth of a babe.  It is also the “emotion excited by the perception of something novel and unexpected, or inexplicable.”  And sometimes this emotion of astonishment can be “mingled with perplexity or bewildered curiosity.” (Shorter Oxford Dictionary)  And again, it’s the state of mind in which these emotions are held.  When we observe something marvelous, wonder-full, we are filled with wonder, which is like being infused with awe.

But then we sometimes say “I wonder…” and there is a shift in meaning.  To simply say, “I wonder…” usually implies doubt.  Yet to preface a phrase with “I wonder if…” is to imply curiosity.  In French, one says “Je me demand…” – I ask myself.  Then it implies that I’m going to explore, to inquire in and of myself about something.  The way I’ve used the word wondering in this book embraces all these meanings.  For to wonder in the sense of exploring, with doubt and curiosity, is to never be far from the wonder of marvel.  Perhaps the greatest wonder of all is that we have the ability to wonder, to reflect.  And to have that capacity as a natural by-product of being alive is simply amazing.

Marvel and wonder go hand-in-hand, and their offspring is true learning. [Continued…]

– miriam louisa simons


e-books
creating from wonder 2
creating from wonder 3