In their book, Buddhism and Jungian Psychology, analysts J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki (who is also a Buddhist priest), mention the danger of “stagnation” following the integration of unconscious contents. This sounds a lot like the stage on the journey to enlightenment the mystics have famously called “the dark night of the soul.” It is the point where a seeker has seen the light, so to speak, but cannot quite believe it yet. This period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation lasts for an indeterminate length of time until a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn, whereupon the ability to feel confident and to act is restored.
The dark night of the soul is a lengthy period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation. It ends when a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn. (Image: public domain)
Being intensely creative can be an intoxicating experience. Consequently, there is a tendency among creative individuals to conceptualize the process in ways that are not realistic. These false theories usually fall into one of two categories. In either case, the error gets in the way of developing a true (and therefore more useful) understanding of the creative process.
Creative people do not always understand their own creative process.
Mystics, poets, and artists of all kinds can sometimes come to believe that their creativity (or inspiration) is not their own. That is, the creative process can seem so remarkable and astonishing that ideas and impulses seem to come from somewhere else or from someone other than the creators themselves. These individuals modestly assume that they could not possibly have come up with such impressive results on their own. For some, the source feels in some way divine and is presumed to lie with “the Muses” or with God. For others, the origin must lie in a mystically enhanced version of the unconscious mind. Both scenarios place the origin of creativity outside the conscious ego. The creator is just a channel.
From time to time, people ask me where I find so many and such varied post ideas. I always answer that I have been a steady reader for most of my life, and since 1990, I have had the habit of writing down my thoughts about whatever it is that I am reading. I also copy out a few quotes now and then. Over the years, those thoughts and quotes have accumulated in paper diaries, journals, notebooks, as well as their digital counterparts. Taken as a whole, they form a loosely structured representation of an ongoing attempt to understand the world around me and my own way of relating to it.
Working out a thorough understanding of my writing had the alchemical effect of illuminating and solidifying my entire worldview. (photo: Pdphoto)
In an earlier post on this topic, I stated that artists (of all kinds) develop their artistic vision by “examining and exploring the implications and ramifications of their personal vision of existence. In other words, they explore their philosophy of life.” The most powerful elements of a personal vision of existence or philosophy of life are the product of the creative person’s unique set of emotionally important ideas, which make up the self. High quality creativity springs from the struggle to attain self-knowledge and authenticity. Great literature, poetry, painting, and sculpture tells us something about life as the artist sees and experiences it. By recognizing, and then shining a light on, the archetypal aspects of their vision and their experience, artists include the illuminating sense of the universal in their work.
High level creators learn how to combine their own worldview with the process of self-discovery to develop their unique artistic vision. (image: wikipaintings)
Cognitive dissonance is usually defined as “the feeling of discomfort when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions.” (Wikipedia) Or, “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes.” (COED) The less familiar aspect of the distressing mental state – that we can also get into trouble when our beliefs and our actions do not coincide – gets less attention. This situation may go beyond the simple case of conscience and morality, of doing something we know is wrong and then feeling guilty (moral cognitive dissonance). It is quite possible to stumble into serious and painful cognitive dissonance without realizing what has happened.
When we look upon our actions and see they do not coincide with our beliefs, we become distressed. This is one form of cognitive dissonance, a kind of jarring discord within the psyche. (Image: Wikipaintings)
The common perception of intuition is that it is blindingly fast, an almost instantaneous comprehension of some problem, question, or situation. In fact, definitions of intuition often describe it in precisely this way. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary says, “… the ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.” In reality, when solving complex problems, intuition can be extremely slow. Sometimes, years may pass before the needed insight suddenly emerges into conscious awareness.
While it might end in a sudden epiphany, the lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw intuition as a years-long process. (Image: Wikipedia)
Creativity research has revealed that creative individuals often try to recapture a nuanced feeling tone or subtle mood that has captivated them when they were children. It has also shown that creators repeatedly make use of something called an “image of wide scope.” Like the treasured mood, the creator acquires their image of wide scope when they are young, typically before the age of eighteen. The desire to recapture a specific mood and the urge to create something incorporating the image of wide scope are driving forces propelling the creator down particular paths. Mood and image can meld and their role in the creative process is complex.
Like the fellow in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, creative people struggle to express a significant “image of wide scope.” (Image: public domain.)
The Greeks and Romans ascribed the source of what we call creativity to a “genius” (Roman) or “daemon” (Greek) linked to the gods. The concept of creativity as we know it did not yet exist and the ancients regarded being “inventive” as an external process. The modern concept of creativity appeared during the Renaissance when, for the first time, Europeans saw creativity not as a gift from a god, but as arising from the abilities of “great men.” However, the shift from divine origins to mortal was gradual and did not become widespread until the Enlightenment.
English social psychologist Graham Wallas gave us the famous five-stage theory of the creative process. (Image: public domain.)
English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead coined the term creativity in 1927 while delivering the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Almost immediately, it became the word of choice in literature, the arts, and science. In fact, the term went into wide use so quickly, we have forgotten its recent origins in the twentieth century.
Many myths surround the creative process. One of these is the notion of creative freedom. It seems obvious that having a free rein could only be beneficial. So prevalent is the attitude that many contemporary creators will refuse to tackle a project that has restrictions. They turn up their noses and stalk haughtily away proclaiming that they could not possibly compromise their artistic vision and personal integrity by acquiescing to anything as philistine as limitations.
Where anything is possible, nothing is interesting. — H. G. Wells (Photo: public domain)
I am going to argue the counter-intuitive idea that restrictions are actually an asset. You may be surprised to learn that many famous creators share the point of view.
H. G. Wells expressed a related sentiment when he said, “Where anything is possible, nothing is interesting.” He was referring to stories, of course. He believed that a hero who could do anything or a situation where anything was possible meant there were no challenges to overcome, no obstacles to surmount, and no dangers to survive. Where is the interest in such a scenario? Who wants to read a story where there are no limits on what a hero can accomplish? Where is the suspense in a story based on the assumption that at any moment some miraculous turn of events will save the day? Only a story where the hero faces the possibility of humiliation, failure, or even death can engage the reader’s concern.
The way to get creative projects rolling is to get enthusiastic about them. We must keep thinking about what we propose to do long enough for the priming effect of absorption to begin drawing forth the relevant ideas and information from our inner and outer lives. Isaac Newton believed that to solve a problem required “thinking on it continually.”
We are at our creative best when completely absorbed in what we are doing. (Photo: Wikipedia)
By continually thinking about our project, we get into the creative mood specific to that project. A cocoon or atmosphere of feeling surrounds what we are doing. We have enveloped ourselves in a creative possibility cloud. As our mood-focussed attention gathers the relevant ideas, images, and bits of information around the emotional nucleus, the proposed project will take shape and the momentum will steadily increase. American sculptor Louise Nevelson said of the artist’s work, “It absorbs you totally, and you absorb it totally, everything must fall by the wayside by comparison.”