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.


 

my brush is my suijo

 

I’d never attempted a self-portrait

until the day

I drew my breath

 
In John Daido Loori‘s must-have book for artists of all persuasions, The Zen of Creativity, he writes about the way shakuhachi maestro Watazumi Doso Roshi regarded his flute as a tool to monitor his authentic integration with, and expression of, the Life Force.

[The] ability to be free in his music was the result of Doso’s life-long, unrelenting commitment to the discipline of the breath. He actually wasn’t very interested in the shakuhachi as a musical instrument.  He called his flute suijo, which loosely translates as “concentrated breathing tool.”  Doso saw himself not so much as a musician or entertainer, but as one who is totally devoted to developing his life force – chi – by utilizing and strengthening his breath.  The bamboo flute was simply a tool for that practice.  He said once, “Since I must have some way of knowing how my breath is doing, I blow into a piece of bamboo and hear how it sounds.”

The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life by John Daido Loori  (1931 – 2009)

This intrigued me. For many years now, part of my own art practice has been to use a single, horizontal brushstroke to express the exhalation of my breath.  It’s a contemplative practice I’ve written about before on this blog (see the links below), and one that continues – whatever the vagaries of my life.  It’s clear to me that my breathscribe paintings are my suijo, my “concentrated breathing tool”.  They show me how my breath is doing. Which in turn reveals what my mind is doing. And that tells me everything about how my Life is doing.
 
 

Wonderingmind Studio: Miriam Louisa Simons, Breathscribe Series, Desert Breath

 

More helpful advice, this time from Watazumi Doso Roshi himself. It applies equally well to artist and musician, singer and dancer, indeed, to all of us as we embrace genuine authenticity:

So in that sound you have to put in your guts, your strength and your own specialness.  And what you are putting in then is your own Life and your own Life Force.  When you hear some music or hear some sound, if for some reason you like it very well; the reason is that sound is in balance or in harmony with your pulse.  And so making a sound, you try to make various different sounds that imitate various different sounds of the universe, but what you are finally making is your own sound, the sound of yourself.

Watazumido Doso Roshi (1910 – 1992)

 

My outer life has vanished,

but love’s breath still breathes for me.

– Hafiz

 


how many ways can you draw quiet?
California breathing
breathscribe series


no artist is pleased

 

Martha Graham

 

On the opening night of the film Oklahoma! Agnes De Mille confessed, “I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.”  Dancer Martha Graham responded:

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.

If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions.  It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.  You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.  Keep the channel open.  No artist is pleased.  There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest.

Martha Graham


Source: stillness speaks
Image source


creativity and autonomy