Can drawing be a tool to get you to connect more fully with your life? This is something Frederick Franck in Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing explores. After engaging consistently with a drawing practice for many years, he discovered that seeing and drawing “had fused into one single undivided act. I call it seeing/drawing.”
He explains that looking-at the world is different to seeing it:”…we have become addicted to merely looking-at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking-at the world… the less we see. The less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.” We are bombarded everyday by thousands of images, sounds, sights and experiences but are we really seeing?
Franck encourages us “Seeing/drawing is an immunization against the addiction to looking-at: it restores the gift of seeing – that is: of Being, of being fully alive.” To pick up a pencil and draw something is to begin to use our eyes more fully, to begin to really see what is in front of us. The process of drawing can unlock a stronger connection to our attention and allow us to open our eyes to a more fuller human experience.
When making or reviewing your art, have you noticed the amount of negative self talk pops into your mind? Judgmental comments or thoughts about the art not being good enough? This judgmental voice or self critic can derail our enthusiasm, confidence and future practice if we believe it’s telling the truth.
Psychologists Barbara Markway and Greg Markway explain in this article the 3 functions the self critic serves:
- As motivation: “If it cracks a whip, it will motivate us to do a desired behavior… we cling to the believe that by berating ourselves, we can achieve more.”
- To feel in control: “When we criticize ourselves, we reinforce the illusion of control.”
- To keep us safe: “Self-criticism taps into the brain’s threat/defense response. The system is designed to protect us and keep us safe. It’s hard-wired into our brain and worked great when the threat was a lion running after us. But when the threat is to our self-concept, self-criticism does not work well”
So if you view you or your art as a problem, the ‘reptilian brain’ as Markway & Markway describe, attacks in the form of self-critical self-talk. Understanding your brain is wired this way to react to perceived ‘threats’ allows self-compassion for moments when you find yourself being self-judgmental.
Mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn explains ‘Non-Judging:’ in this video: “My working definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And the non-judgmentally is the real challenge because when you start to pay attention to what’s on your mind, you very rapidly discover that we have ideas and opinions about everything… So when we speak of mindfulness as being non-judgmental awareness, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be judgments. It means you will be aware of how judgmental we actually are and then not judge the judging…. Our judging is very often black and white. It’s either this or that… good or bad… and we get imprisoned by that kind of view.”
Noticing is the first step. Our poor reptilian brains do like to jump to judgmental conclusions often and quickly and that’s okay. Allow the thoughts to surface and greet them with compassion. And then get back to making your art.
If you want to be creative and innovative, you must acknowledge all your efforts. That includes the not-so-good outcomes as well as the good ones. Both are integral to development, gaining confidence, mastering skills and finding your voice as an artist.
Austin Shaw in a talk at Google explains why acknowledgment is beneficial within an organisation, (the idea also translates to self-encouragement): “You not only want to acknowledge when a person is doing well, but also their attempts when things don’t go well. We have to have license to fail if we’re actually going to be creative. We have to have that safety by which we can start to feel that we can try things and we won’t be reprimanded if it doesn’t go well… You’ve got to have it [failure] if you want innovation.”
Failure is often avoided at all costs when it comes to creativity. The experienced pain of ‘getting it wrong’ hurts our ego-minds who want to get everything ‘right’ immediately. But ironically failure is the secret sauce to innovation. It creates faster learning curves and allows for more spontaneity, the perfect ground for unexpected creative ideas to grow from. If you can start to acknowledge everything you do as a drop into the bucket of creativity, you could free yourself to be open to more creative possibilities. Allow yourself a safety net for failure because to fail is a wonderful tool for development.
“Greater forces than us are running the show. The world doesn’t turn because we personally turn it. Step back for a minute and see how the show still goes on, even when we release the white-knuckle grip we have on the imaginary steering wheel of destiny.” — Elizabeth Gilbert
An ideal state to get in whilst making art is the flow state, popularised by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It describes the experience of being so absorbed in what you’re doing that you forget everything else, even time passing. and many different tasks can produce flow, from athletic to creative activities. Flow is important because it’s an important aspect of creativity, satisfaction and wellness.
In his book Flow, Csikszentmihalyi describes “The positive aspects of human experience – joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow.” He uses a rock climbing experience example: “The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.”
Alex Grey in The Mission of Art says “During an artist’s creative flow of concentration, he or she can be in a state of unity and integration with the subject and may also have breakthroughs of insight.” Being able to get into the flow state can create a fertile ground for the unexpected to emerge–a key creativity tool. Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path describes how “It is action without thought. The mind is not getting in the way and confusing you. You are just expressing without even knowing what you are doing. You are the flow… This is the miracle of inspiration, of creating. Un-self-conscious acting… When we become conscious, it’s over…”
How do we get into the flow state when making art? Relax and focus your attention firmly upon the physical experience of making, not on the outcome. Ignore mental chatter and avoid self-judgement because they will make you conscious of every mark you make. Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action suggests “Relaxation of control is a basis for inspired expression… Ironically, we are doing our best thinking when we are not consciously thinking about what we are doing. We become so completely engaged with sensing and feeling what is taking shape during the present moment that we are able to put everything we have into the process of expression.”
If our best thinking comes from not thinking, it’s time to relax and let go of the outcome and go with the flow to create from within.
“Generous work is generously made.”
Intuition is a powerful tool to access an inner guidance for creativity. Based on instinctive feeling, it’s not about thinking your way to a solution but rather getting still and feeling the answer in your body. Sometimes a feeling bubbles up or bursts out in the form of a “eureka” moment. Other times it’s more subtle or quiet which can make it harder register unless you’re specifically paying attention. How can intuitive feelings guide you when making art? It points to what you’re most interested in. The more excitement or curiousness you feel about a project, art material, subject (or any potential creative choice), that’s the path to follow next.
Gary Zukav in The Seat of the Soul explains that “Intuition serves creativity. It tells you what book to buy for your project. It tells you where to meet the colleague that you need to meet, and which ideas from one field will complement which ideas from another. It is the hunch that a certain painting should be done in gray, and that another should be done in purple. It is the sense that an idea that has never been tried before might work. Intuition serves inspiration. It is the sudden answer to a question. It is the meaning that form in the fog of confusion.”
Relying only upon logic and conscious reasoning to make creative decisions can only get you so far. A great deal of logic may in fact come from unconscious rules you’ve inadvertently decided upon. In other words you may making choices based on what you think you should do. These shoulds may well have been created by other people ideas, industries or media many years ago. With creativity there are no shoulds, only possibilities and intuition allows you to remain open to possibility abundance.