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Life as a Creative Practice

Creativity as a Practice

“There are no rules to creativity.” At least according to Laura Jaworski. Whether you consider yourself creative or not, for many, creativity is both completely captivating and entirely frightening. Perhaps Laura’s no rules perspective makes creativity feel too risky? And yet the temptation for something new often outweighs the risks. Creativity promises the carrot and threatens the stick (failure).

George Lois describes the carrot half of the equation: “Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.” From compassion to curiosity, today we explore creativity. Creativity builds on the “Maybe This” mindset by preparing our minds (and hearts) to Reframe from Love.

Feeding the Tiger: a metaphor

In a previous life of the Buddha, he was a Prince in the country. One day, Prince Sattva discovered the tigers in the forest were starving in the forest. As a Bodhisattva cultivator and one who practiced Great Compassion, the Prince fed his body to these tigers. The teaching is not to encourage people to end their lives. Rather, this story is a reflection of Buddha’s compassion. At this time, the Prince was at the pre-stage of attaining his Buddhahood. (This story originated from the Buddhist Sutra “Xian Yu Sutra” Volume 1: “Maha Prince Sattva Feeding His Body to Tigers”).

Now, for a revisionist’s take on the story.

Imagine you wake up one morning and just outside your front door you find an adorable tiger kitten meowing. Of course you bring the cuddly little thing inside and decide to keep it as a pet.

After playing with him for a while, you notice he is still meowing, nonstop. You look for places of injury or discomfort. But find nothing. Eventually you realize that he must be hungry. You feed him a bit of minced red meat knowing that is what tigers like to eat. You do this every day, and every day your pet tiger grows a bit bigger. As your tiger grows, you celebrate your success and grow in your commitment to nurture and support her. You even host a birthday party for your new friend. Time sure flies when you’re learning new things and responsible for the care and well-being of another!

Over the course of two years, your tiger’s daily meals change from hamburger scraps to prime ribs, to entire sides of beef. Soon your little pet no longer meows when hungry. Instead, he growls ferociously at you whenever HE thinks it is mealtime.

Your cute little pet has turned into an uncontrollable, savage beast that can or will very likely tear you apart if he doesn’t get what he wants.

What’s the Lesson?

Painful thoughts & feelings can be compared to this imaginary pet tiger. When we first see the tiger we are captivated by its innocence and beauty. We think, surely there is no harm in engaging with this little, bity tiger. For I am big and he is small. I am strong and he is a but a helpless thing.

For the sake of this story, let’s assume you are not a tiger-expert or even a trained animal care-taker. Let’s assume for the sake of the story, you are an animal lover and willing to learn new things. So let’s check in on what we know of the 7Cs of Inspired Shift.

  • Compassion: desire to do good, and do right by this tiger. CHECK!
  • Curiosity: we realize there is some stuff we don’t know BUT we have a willingness to learn. CHECK!

Taking on the care of another being is a HUGE opportunity for shift! As a parent, I think becoming a mom was my most powerful experience of SHIFT… and just as I thought I’d figured it out, the next developmental stage of my kid required an entirely different set of skills and tools. In the story of the tiger, it’s a good thing we’ve successfully identified BOTH compassion and curiosity to assist in this transition, right? Can you hear the sarcasm in my voice? Compassion and Curiosity is NOT enough!

Albert Einstein defined creativity as “seeing what others see and thinking what no one else ever thought.” Perhaps creativity is seeing the baby tiger and thinking he would be a great pet. Einstein’s definition however, seems to lack wisdom, if not raw intelligence.

Would you agree? In what context is a baby tiger EVER going to make a good household pet?

Reframe Mind Game

Often I hear stories of folks feeling stuck… in uninspiring jobs, in unhealthy relationships, in roles that don’t reflect or honor their skills. This stuckness is a mental state where creativity has been shut down. Like a faucet that has been turned off at the main, the flow is simply not available. Maybe we convince ourselves it is the loving, dare I say, “compassionate” thing to do, to “rescue” the abandoned tiger. Even if we begin the journey thinking of it as a temporary solution with every intention of finding a suitable home for our little friend. In doing so we have prioritized the tiger’s perceived well-being over our own safety. This reframe is not built on Thich Nhat Hanh’s three questions I shared when I talked about Curiosity. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? This kind of rationalizing mind game is why self-care has to be the foundation of our Compassion practice.

Once we have committed to the new role of tiger care-taker, even if it’s temporary, what options have we inadvertently dismissed, ignored, or denied in commitment to our newly claimed role? This is when Creativity becomes a critical skill for Inspired Shift!

Every time we “feed” our pain, we empower the myths and beliefs contained within the story.  Avoiding the pain only brings greater risk, so you feed the pain. You help your pain-tiger grow a little bit larger and a little bit stronger. Feeding it in this manner seems like the prudent thing to do. The pain-tiger growls ferociously telling you to feed it whatever it wants or it will eat you. Yet, every time you feed it, you help the pain to become stronger, more intimidating, and more controlling of your life.

Perhaps you are thinking, Curiosity got me into this predicament. So much for Inspired Shift! No thank you!

But it’s not curiosity that created the problem of a hungry tiger. That’s just life! Perhaps curiosity NOT founded on Compassion for ourselves AND the tiger caused us to ignore reason: tigers are not good pets! For now, let’s table this debate as to how the problem started. Instead, let’s consider, even if Curiosity did get us into this mess, can Creativity help us navigate our way out?

As my sign in the studio says, Going in is the way out! 😊

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “Creative living is any life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” From compassion we explore curiosity. From curiosity we cultivate creativity. It’s almost unavoidable!

There is no question, if I am a care-taker for a tiger, there is reason for fear. And yet I am not without knowledge and experience having now raised the tiger for two years. And yet, at what point did the circumstances become tenuous. The moment we realize the circumstances are not sustainable, this is when we move beyond Curiosity and into Creativity. This transition is most accessible when we have direct access to Compassion.

Creativity & Inspiration

Theodore Levitt said, “Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.” According to Dictionary.com, creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations. Creativity is also used to describe the power to bring something new into being. Creative Power. Whether we gestate life or parent, or participate in the rearing and raising of another life, creativity is a valuable skill!

When you think of creativity, what comes to mind? Perhaps you imagine works of art in print or in presentation. Maybe you’re drawn toward the originality of invention and innovation. Or perhaps creativity sparks a spirit of genius, cleverness, originality or resourcefulness. I tend to think of creativity as inspiration often existing before it is put into form of Action, the doing, non-doing, undoing and redoing. Creativity is a skill that facilitates value in our chosen Actions.

The point is, there is never JUST ONE WAY to define or even experience anything, including creativity. But at the core of this concept, I do think it’s important to note that creativity is an inherent component of every living thing. It’s part of our nature, even if it is unequally distributed or accessed. Think of creativity like melanin, some of us have more of it than others; and still others have it show up in patterns that differ from anyone else. I can tell you that I’ve net met someone who has my same arrangement and distribution of freckles!

Back in 2018, Yoga Journal published an article sharing 16 Yoga Poses to Spark Inspiration, or so says the article title. Whether you agree with the results from embodying these poses, such as

  • Vajrasana (Thunderbolt or a heart opening variation of Hero’s pose)
  • Revolved High Lunge
  • Vasisthasana Side Plank
  • Indudalasana or Krishna’s Pose or a standing lateral bend (aka Half Moon)

A quick glance reveals these poses break from the linear formula of everyday movements. By incorporating twists, side bends, and heart opening back bends, we break the rules of “normal” life and expand our range of motion, our perspective and our connection to both ourselves and the Oneness.  That sounds like opening to Creativity to me.

Lila: Yoga for Play

Lila is a Sanskrit word. A concept meaning pastime, sport, or play. Lila is a way of describing all reality, including the cosmos, as the outcome of creative play by the divine absolute. Samkhya or Sankhya is one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. It is most related to the Yoga school of Hinduism, and it was influential on other schools of Indian philosophy. Samkhya is strongly dualist, regarding the universe as consisting of two realities, puruṣa (consciousness) and prakritti (matter). Jiva (a living being) is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakṛti in some form. The universe, as defined by Samkhya, is one created by purusa-prakṛti entities infused with various permutations and combinations of variously enumerated elements, senses, feelings, activity and mind.

Samkhya organizes all of the universe according to guṇas, qualities, or innate tendencies. Guṇa are of three types: sattva being goodness, compassion, illumination, and positivity; rajas being activity, chaos, passion, and impulsivivity, potentially good or bad; and tamas being the quality of darkness, ignorance, destruction, lethargy, negativity. All matter (prakṛti), according to Samkhya, contains all these three guṇas, but in different proportions. The interplay of these guṇas defines the character of someone or something.

From this perspective, Yoga might define Creativity as an expression of Sattvic energy, an extension of the elements of compassionate creation itself. Creativity, like energy, has no good or bad. Likewise there is no end, just transformation. In physics and chemistry, we call it conservation of energy. Simply stated, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  But not all energy is created equally. This is like Samkhya idea of proportional distribution of elements. Some energy facilitates movement, while other energy produces sound or light. I don’t understand all the forms of energy and what distinguishes them from each other, but I do understand that ALL THE FORMS of energy fall into one of two categories: potential energy and kinetic energy. Potential energy is stored, unused, unapplied energy. Kinetic energy is movement or applied energy.

There was a time when “experts” defined creativity as a scarce quality with which one is either born with or without the trait. Much like the concept of “Natural Born Leader”. This formula for creativity fueled a myth of scarcity and all-or-nothing mentality. Recent scientific studies have conceded that leadership is 30% genetic and 70% learned. I don’t know if I agree entirely with that ratio, but it demonstrates my point. Attitudes change, perspectives change. How we describe things change. Everything changes, hence Shift!

Likewise, Teresa Amabile and her colleagues at Harvard Business School have determined that there is much more support for the nurture side of the Creativity equation. In other words, we can learn to be creative AND we can continue to grow in our level of creativity. With practice!

Phil Cousineau said, “Inspiration comes and goes, creativity is the result of practice.” My own meditation teacher, Sudhir Jonathan Faust taught that a meditation practice makes us accident prone. The accident we might just trip into is enlightenment.

The obstacles that prohibit our enlightenment are what the Buddhists call the Five Hindrances. In a nutshell, the hindrances are illusions of our mind state, false hoods or myths that we believe to be real. The five hindrances can be simplified as two types of attachment (1) desire and (2) ill will and two types of avoidance (3) sloth & torpor and (4) anxiety) and perhaps the overarching umbrella of (5) doubt. These are the obstacles that make aligned living challenging. Clarity helps us to see truth and adjust our mindset to choose wisely HOW and IF we engage, with the tiger or any beast the blocks our path.

Motivation & Competition

Practice. Practice is what matters. Consistent practice is the key. The same can be said about ALL human qualities and skills, whether it’s meditation, creativity, or an asana pose. We are born with reflexes that last just long enough for our baby brains to develop the ability to learn skills. In other words, everything we do NOW, we learned! Our Environment in terms of  exposure and encouragement have much more influence on the skills and qualities of our person.

While much of the discussion about creativity in the modern world is actually limited to the process of creating and controlling change, creativity is NOT exclusively about the tangible, resulting outcome of the creative process, but rather the process of being in process itself.

Amabile found that competition decreases creativity and that doing meaningful work increases creativity. Now her research was conducted in work places and in learning environments. But the lessons learned translate to ANY environment. In fact, her research described creativity as resulting from a positive feedback loop she coined the Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity.

Intrinsic Motivation refers to four qualities, (1) Interest, (2) Enjoyment, (3) Satisfaction and (4) Challenge.

Creativity reflects the level of perceived access to these four conditions. As our perception, emotions and motivation increase towards the positive, we experience heightened positive inner life which in turn results in increased creativity, productivity and respect for colleagues resulting in increased collaboration. This is why gratitude is such a valuable practice. Gratitude helps us take ownership of our emotional well-being.

In turn, our experience with collaboration and productivity fuels our perceived sense of motivation, value and purpose. In a nutshell, Amabile’s work concludes that doing meaningful work matters and making daily progress, even just small gains, is best. As a yoga therapist, and as a coach, helping my clients identify and celebrate small wins is HUGE! We’ve been conditioned to expect and accept ONLY BIG WINS (if any!)

Sound familiar? Relearning how to live with happiness and joy is the journey of Yoga Living.

Do you know the best part of this research?

Perfection & Failure

It’s NOT even necessary to always get it right, or to do it perfectly. In fact, evidence supports the opposite. Adversity and challenge actually enhance creativity as well as community when the environment, the context and the conditions remain healthy in collaboration and cooperation. Unfortunately, many organizations and even teams rationalize hurdles, obstacles and challenges as opportunity for competition, even within the same team.

Brene Brown, social worker and shame researcher (and my personal hero) reminds us, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure.”

Creativity is not the same as chaos. Nor is it a synonym for talent or artistry. Creativity is the state that allows for creation from within chaos and with time and practice may cultivate talent and even a specific skill. The skill I am referring to as Creativity is the energy to explore possibility, to break rules, and bridge ideas, to Reframe from Love.

To be a “Creative” or to call yourself an Artist might just be pre-empted by, and even depend on, the skill of creativity. But creativity as a skill is something we can all learn.

In addition to Amabile’s work, three other researchers offer valuable perspective to the practice of cultivating creativity as a way to Reframe from Love. (1) Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who coined the term Flow. (2) Dr. Stuart Brown who is an expert on Play. And (3) Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, whom identified the 7 types of Rest that I shared a few months ago. This is a team I would love to collaborate with. It sounds like a sure-fire strategy for creativity and joy!

Psychologist and Researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi investigates optimal experience. He coined this state of optimal performance as “Flow” and equates it to the high runners and high performing athletes feel when they are “in the zone”. But it’s more than just an athlete’s condition, it would more accurately be described as a mind state for highly skilled, highly committed practitioners doing what they love. Similarly, Patanjali’s 7th limb, Dhyana has been translated as Flow. A pre-bliss state that follows the focused effort of Dharana.

He writes, “This optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when energy, or attention, is invested” well. Order is a pre-requisite for choosing to dis-order or break rules and boundaries. Remember, Laura Jaworski said “there are no rules to creativity.” Ironically, we have to know and recognize the boundaries and rules before we can break them and call it creativity.

Furthermore, people are more creative when they are in a state of flow AND more creative the day after having experienced a state of Flow. Or as Maya Angelou described it, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

Rest, Sleep & Play

The second contributor to the discussion of Creativity as I see it is Dr. Stuart Brown. Also a clinical researcher, Dr. Brown is a licensed psychiatrist and Founder of the National Institute for Play. His work proposes that play might just be the most important work we can ever do. “We are designed to find fulfillment and creative growth through play,” he writes.  In other words, play is the strategy for accessing creativity. As mindful meditation is the strategy for quieting our inner mind chatter and asana is the strategy for cultivating mobility, strength and agility. With enough play, the brain simply works better. With enough movement, the body simply works better. Well, enough of the “right” movement…

We feel more positive and more creative. Play, like sleep is a core quality for our sustained well-being. In fact, Saundra Dalton Smith, a physician and Ted Talk presenter, even named Creative Rest as one of the 7 types of rest essential for our well-being and especially important for anyone who must solve problems or brainstorm new ideas. Raising a Tiger sounds like a “problem to be solved”, or perhaps the problem is better described as: avoid being killed by pet tiger.

Creative rest reawakens the awe and wonder inside each of us. Enjoying the beauty of the outdoors — napping in a hammock, taking a walk at a local park or in your backyard, or embarking on a hike deep in the jungle — provides creative rest. But creative rest isn’t simply about appreciating nature; it also includes enjoying the arts. Actively or passively. For me, I love Lego bricks. Whether it’s looking at idea books or following the prescribed pattern (the one that came in the box) or flushing out an original design. Different speeds for different types of rest.

You can turn your workspace or your bedroom into a place of inspiration by displaying images of places you love and works of art that speak to you. Whether its a Vision Board or a famous work of art, our minds and moods and affected by how we see our space. We can’t spend our life staring at blank or jumbled surroundings and expect to feel passionate about anything, much less come up with innovative ideas to facilitate change and transformational growth.

“Creativity is a combination of discipline and childlike spirit,” defined Robert Greene. Or similarly, Dorothy Parker described “Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye.” Both seem to embrace the idea of form and freedom, control and change, passion and practice. Discipline or tapas, according to the Yogi’s, is a BIG component of shift, and we’ll come back to explore it more later. For now, suffice it to say #its a practice.

Creativity & Yoga

As a yogi, I experience creativity most tangibly as flow, referring to the intuitive fluidity of un-choreographed, un-coerced movement in body, mind, and breath. I am most able to access creative flow when I am well rested and well cared for, meaning I’ve prioritized my self-care. The are the 10 practices I teach in Yoga Living.

Creativity is not the same as chaos. Nor is it a synonym for talent or artistry. Creativity is the state that allows for creation from within chaos and with time and practice may cultivate talent and even a specific skill. The skill I am referring to as Creativity is the energy to explore possibility, to break rules, and bridge ideas, to Reframe from Love.

To be a “Creative” or to call yourself an Artist might just be pre-empted by, and even depend on, the skill of creativity. But creativity as a skill is something we can all learn.

As a Yoga Teacher, I experience this flow in crafting sequences and weaving philosophy lessons into the embodied practice, as well as sharing my knowledge in unique trainings and programs rooted in the practice and principles of Yoga. In doing Yoga, as a practice and a lifestyle, I connect with play and creativity, even if the only one who receives the jolt of inspiration in the practice is me. Fortunately for me, that is often not the case. My students often tell me they feel inspired by my teaching, inspired to be their authentic selves. Is there anything more creative than becoming your own best self? Brene Brown confessed, “Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world.”

I ask participants of the Yoga Foundations program to craft three personal statements over the course of their training, an Intention Statement, an Attention Statement, and an Action Statement in relationship to their Yoga Journey. The purpose of this progressive exercise is to help them see with new eyes and define, and clarify the rules or boundaries that have garnered their perspective.

Yoga is a process for transformation and growth. Learning to see things for what they are can help to awaken our sense of self and possibility. By articulating these three statements, student teachers come to see the distinctions AND the connections between motivation, interests, and efforts. They discover, often, the disparity between the path they have been walking and the one they wish to travel going forward. Shift is the work required to make those changes so that they result in worthwhile outcomes that eventually become a new foundation of identity and practice. Creativity is a learnable skill to express our unique personality and true self to be seen by others.

One student wrote recently, “What has caught my attention is the importance of pranayama, meditation and the need to love myself unconditionally. Bringing attention to meditation is so important because it increases my creativity and heightens my imagination. I previously never considered yoga as more than the asana postures. It’s like my world has opened and expanded.”

Reframe from Love

When we Reframe from Love we are looking for the potential energy contained within the “problem’, we look beyond the obvious to see deeper into story, context, and relationships. Reframe from Love teaches us to see our own assumptions and to interrupt the habitual patterns of assumptions and expectations based on fear.

So perhaps the question is not: Are you creative? and Can you use creativity to resolve your tiger problem? But rather, HOW can you transform your understanding of the problem? How can you access your potential, your nature, to be in relationship WITH the reality of what is. What ACTION (doing, non-doing, undoing or re-doing) best aligns with your intention and authentic self, rooted in compassion? How can you Reframe your concept of the circumstances from love and possibility?

Perhaps creativity is the playful experimentation with the qualities and elements of life itself. Just like a recipe for cake is a lot like a recipe for brownies, the ratio of eggs to flour makes all the difference! Getting creative is about experimenting and exploring possibility. Letting go of rules, not because they don’t have value, but because value, purpose, our life’s work are bigger than rules. Rules provide the boundaries to keep us safe like guardrails on a mountain road. BUT, rules can also result in us “shoulding on ourselves” if we don’t know when to climb over the rails and around the obstacles.

Rules help us to make sense of the parts and pieces, creativity allows us to rearrange and reorganize the pieces, and sometimes we discover something entirely new that might even be better than the original idea.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite ways to play and cultivate creative rest is to build things using Lego bricks. I have a whole town that I started when recovering from my concussion in 2008. I typically start my Lego play guided by the provided picture-driven instructions. In fact, my favorite thing about Lego sets are the 3-in-1 kits. Unfortunately, that often results in me wanting 3 of the same item. But it also gives me the tools, the bricks to expand the original design and maintain the same look of the project while creating something unique and aligned with my Lego town. I call it Dharma Town, in case you were wondering. It’s also the name of my Island when I play Animal Crossing!

Take Away

Osho said, “To be creative means to be in love with life. You can be creative only if you love life enough that you want to enhance its beauty, you want to bring a little more music to it, a little more poetry to it, a little more dance to it.” Yoga is the practice of living well. Of breathing well, of moving well in body and in mind and resting well so that we can restore ourselves to do the things that matter most every day.

So here’s the catch, Creativity is not going to solve our tiger problem. It’s just the next step toward clarity, which when done well, will bring the solution into clearer view by expanding our perspective and exploring new ideas and possibilities. However, seeing the possibilities does not guarantee we are ready to shift. That’s why the next step is Courage. In fact, we may find ourselves oscillating back and forth between Creativity and Courage as we continue to explore. As Henri Matisse explained, “Creativity takes courage.” Henri Matisse. But he also said, “Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while working.” It’s a practice.

So let’s practice creativity by exploring new ideas, new strategies, new shapes and new patterns. Let’s reframe our mental mindset and our emotional outlook from love. Let’s consider possibility and potentiality. Nothing about creativity requires commitment, in fact that’s probably the best take-away for measuring Creativity and Play. Can you engage without expectation? When it’s time to move on, can you let it go, let it be, and let it flow?