Posts Tagged ‘Flow’

Wu Wei: The Power of Spontaneity

I’ve often written here about the concept of ‘Flow’ as it relates to creative process and our overall sense of well-being; that there is a higher intelligence at work regarding a ‘formula’ for creativity that we can trust as an organizing principle not only in the creative process, but more importantly in our day to day lives. We’ve all had that feeling of being ‘in the zone’. It’s almost an outer body experience; whether you’re an artist or an athlete, doing the dishes or working in the garden. My own experience has most certainly taught me that only when I let go of all conscious effort can I tap into real creativity, insight, maximum effectiveness and a deeper sense of connection—even though I may feel out of control and filled with uncertainty (which I often do).

In his book Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science and the Power of Spontaneity, Edward Slingerland beautifully dissects the principle of Wu Wei, or unattached action, taking the concept of ‘flow’ further. He connects our very modern preoccupation with creativity,  heightened performance and quality of being to principles put forth by early Chinese philosophers. The 5th to 3rd century BCE was a time of social and political chaos, but also a time of incredible philosophical creativity. Several religious thinkers incorporated the virtues of ‘naturalness’ and spontaneity into their writings, and although they didn’t agree on all points, they all felt that “overall success in life was linked to the charisma one radiates when completely at ease, or the effectiveness one displays when fully absorbed.” Breaking it down,

“Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei , proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures. In many respects, it resembles the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s well-known concept of “flow,” or the idea of being in the zone, but with important—and revealing—differences that we will explore.”

We all have access to this state of being, more so as we age because it involves life experience, as British philosopher and writer Alan Watts states: “to know the principles, structures and trends of human natural affairs so well that one uses the last amount of energy in dealing with them.” Legendary photographer Edward Weston expresses it another way with regard to creative process:

“One does not think during creative work, any more than one thinks when driving a car. But one has a background: learning, unlearning, success, failure, dreaming, thinking, experiencing, all this—then the moment of creation, the focusing of all into the moment. So I can make ‘without thought’ ……but there is all the eyes have seen in my life to influence me.”

The question is then how to train ourselves to ‘shut off’ our minds (an oxymoron if there ever was one); to create space for the subconscious intelligence to creep in with its’ gifts? This is a challenge we all face with society putting so much value on productivity and efficiency. There is excessive emphasis on the power of conscious thought, on will power. Spontaneous thought and action is thought to be somehow inferior, or uninformed.

The key to enlightened Wu Wei is seeing and responding appropriately to what is in front of you. Seeing Clearly. The paradox is that it is not effortless. To the contrary, it requires tremendous energy to stay continuously attuned to shifting circumstances—focused and alert….yet relaxed. It’s about building muscle around awareness and receptivity, around ‘not knowing’—about trusting your state of inward and outward harmonization which allows you to act naturally and spontaneously…with intention. It’s a tricky balance, but without a doubt it is where the magic happens.

Here’s a tip: Photography is a wonderful tool for taking us out of our habitual patterns of overthinking and into heightened present moment awareness.  As a practice, wherever you are, commit to a half hour each day. Simply look for interesting imagery around you regardless of subject matter. Wander with intention. Don’t worry about outcomes. You’ll surprise yourself at how quickly you get into a state of receptivity and reap the benefits of spontaneity, find flow and get out of your monkey mind. You’ll feel relaxed, refreshed, and re-energized. It’s a wonderful reset. You’ll also take some pretty great photos. I promise. To see examples of my practice, click on my Instagram feed @elizabethwattny.

Ideas are the Easy Part

ideasI can’t believe I’ve only written 5 blog posts in a year here. Truth is, I do wake up every morning saying to myself  ‘I should write a blog post today‘. The closest I get most days is simply jotting down more ideas for posts. This is the thing—for many of us ideas are the easy part. They come unbidden; most often not the result of concentrated effort–spontaneously rather–usually when in the midst of some random, otherwise-engaged activity. So they pile up–countless ideas spoken into my iphone ‘notes to self’ while out on a stroll, driving, or jotted down after a shower. When I know I’ve had a particularly good idea, this gives me a sense of accomplishment—a sense of ‘siempre adelante’ as a colleague of mine here signs off on his emails: ‘always forward’. Love that. And so it goes….days, weeks, months pass. Although It’s very exciting and gratifying to have this sense of ever-evolving ideas and the sense of aliveness therein; actually acting on those ideas– making stuff happen, requires tremendous focus and discipline which seems to elude me much of the time.

What I’ve learned is that it’s all about balance, and understanding that only time, and a certain amount of intention, can allow us the fresh perspectives we need to move forward in the best possible way. It’s not always about pushing and productivity. Sometimes it’s more about allowing, stepping back, letting go, trusting the process and paying attention to the unexpected gifts given. That’s when the really good ideas present; ideas that foster change and positive growth—the ones we really need. Then, and most importantly, it’s about creating structure and routine around acting on those ideas with enough consistency to rewire around whatever evolution is taking place. Pariyatti cautions: ‘Beware the ill-directed mind’…..such a road-blocker. This takes no small amount of discipline and conscious effort.

I love how the formula for creative productivity can mirror the best way to approach living our lives on a day-to-day basis, especially when managing change. If you’re really tuned in you realize you are being guided; the trick is to have no expectations as to outcome–tricky stuff. That’s where the magic happens if you allow it…recognizing (re-cognizing) where the real opportunity is, and being comfortable with all the uncertainty therein; trusting the process. In my experience, this is where the best art comes from, and the best quality of life as well.

Announcing The ‘Good Eye’ Photo Workshop

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 ….Honing Your Photographic Vision: Use your camera phone to tune in rather than tune out.

Join us for 5 days, August 7-12 2016, in San Miguel De Allende for a lively workshop exploring photography as a tool for the practice of mindfulness and creative engagement with the world around us.

Anyone can develop a ‘Good Eye’ with practice; it’s a muscle we can build like any other. This workshop will focus on the pleasure and the power of discovering beauty in unexpected places. Have you ever wondered why some photographs of the mundane—the ordinary in everyday life—resonate with us so powerfully? What makes certain images so magical, original or illuminating? It’s about actively ‘seeing’ as opposed to passively looking, and understanding the aesthetic aspects of visual discernment such as composition, light and shadow, perspective, depth-of-field, color, symmetry, texture, line and curve. Through illustrated talks, daily exercises and explorations that bring us closer to real ‘seeing’, you’ll learn how to refine your critical eye and indulge in practices that awaken your creative spirit, as well as exploring the concept of Miksang, described here.

To learn more and be added to our mailing list email us at [email protected]

 

The ‘Good Eye’

goodeye_2Like many who have built a career around being a photographer, I’ve often been told I have a ‘good eye’. It’s more or less a necessary job skill. A question that has come up throughout my career  is whether or not having a ‘good eye’ is something that can be learned, or is it some innate ability? ‘Good’ here doesn’t mean good as we usually use the word, as in good or bad. For sure, some are gifted with a ‘good eye’ —a natural sense of the visually correct and beautiful. In my experience, some of the people with the best ‘eyes’ have not necessarily made it their life’s work to do anything with their innate ability. Democratizing social media platforms such as Instagram now offer an outlet for those amazing ‘eyes’—they abound—and humble me.

The Good Eye can be learned. On the one hand it’s very much about educating our process of Seeing— becoming more discerning observers. My eye was, and still is, honed by looking at great art-constantly, and asking myself: why does this work? We can break down and study the components of visual discernment— color, form, shape and proportion, light and shadow, contrast, texture, line, angles and curves, composition—and become more acute visual thinkers.  This is about the practice of seeing–deliberately. It’s a kind of sophisticated attentional training. By tuning in to the components of sophisticated imagery we wire our visual sense to the Good. Like anything else, the more you focus (pun intended) on a skill, the more automatic it becomes.

The second and equally important part of developing a Good Eye is the opposite of the analytical aspect above. Good here means that our mind is uncluttered by preoccupation, relaxed and open. It’s more about a letting go—of thinking, of preconceived notions, of labeling what we see. It’s about seeing clearly without filters and biases, it’s about allowing ourselves to be completely present and open to the moment, to feel the image—to re-present reality through the lens of our unique and pure perception. It’s an internal, intuitive, fearless kind of seeing. It’s a form of self-forgetting; it feels like flow. Photography approached in this way borders on spiritual practice, and images created in this space are the ones that resonate most with the viewer.

The Good Eye is a muscle we can build like any other. The fact that we have the camera now always in our pocket is an advantage if used rightly—to tune in rather than tune out—as a practice it is incredibly enlivening.

Flip the To-Do list

actions_intentionsAre your day-to-day actions in line with your intentions? Intent is a form of directed attention. If the quality of life is, in fact, a function of what we pay attention to, then it is more critical (and challenging) than ever to be mindful of how we spend our days. For those of us who don’t have structured work lives, or anyone looking to evolve, create and/or accomplish anything significant, I find this a useful question to be checking in with. It’s easy to lose sight of our priorities in the efficiency/productivity-obsessed culture we live in.

One useful way of staying on track is to Flip the To-Do list. Most of us put the simplest, most immediate and mundane-yet-necessary tasks  at the top of the list; i.e. have something fixed, email someone, shop for this or that: react and respond. We move through the first half of the list feeling we’ve been productive and had a full day; we feel good about ourselves. Item #1: check. Item #2: check. Then we rewrite the list for the next day, replacing the top half of the items. Repeat.

The fact is, the most important, creative, and nourishing tasks—create something, start a business, learn something new, add value/be significant somehow—grow—are at the bottom of the list and simply get carried over each day, staring us in the face for days, weeks, months, years, unaddressed. Sound familiar?

Part of the reason for this is the complexity of the ‘doing’ of these things: the discipline and clarity of focus required. Most of your bottom items require their own separate list of actionable steps. Try bringing at least one of the bottom items to the top of the list and leave it there. Break it down into doable-on-a-daily basis tasks. Then bring another and approach it the same way. See if you can create a shift in how you fill your days. In the end everything still gets done, and your energy-releasing ideas can start fueling a more joy-filled existence. This is where real accomplishment lies.

The ‘Upside of Exile’… take 2

purplegrowthI wrote a post entitled ‘The Upside of Exile’ back in October, prompted by an article in the NY Times on the value of leaving the comforts of the place we call ‘home’— giving up former identities, leaving much of what we hold near and dear, moving out of our comfort zones—in the service of renewal and reinvention. I stressed the connection between this notion of exile and our ability to have ‘fresh eyes’  (previous post)—to see things anew, to be awake and alive, to have fresh perspectives. The post was also very personal as I had recently decided to ‘exile’ myself to a new home in Mexico—exciting on the one hand but not without plenty of questioning and self doubt.

Seven months later I can speak to another, more profound and somewhat ironic upside of exile: a deeper sense of home. Once all the dust and chaos of relocation settle and the initial excitement and fun of everything being new and different gives way to routine as it inevitably does; you find truth in the saying ‘Anywhere you go, there you are.’ Through the process of rebuilding your life in a new place you discover what aspects of your experience are a function of where you are and what aspects are with you no matter where you go. And that’s when the real work of renewal begins; the opportunity to shed old ways of being that no longer serve you; to learn how to be self reliant—not depending on outer circumstances for a sense of security, but most importantly you learn how to feel at home within yourself no matter where you are. That’s hugely empowering.

Many friends, old and new, have talked about the courage it must have taken to make this move. Up until recently it didn’t feel courageous, rather that I was stumbling along. Now it does feel a bit more like courage, aptly framed by this quote I recently came across: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”–Ambrose Redmoon

Aesthetic Arrest

lilyfaceI love this term—’Aesthetic Arrest’. It best describes the feeling we have when in the presence of a work of art, or any object of beauty, that has that ‘wow’ quality, that stops us in our tracks. We feel somehow altered by the encounter, taken outside of ourselves, elevated somehow. Robert Rye best expresses it here: “The contemplative instant at which (an artwork) is appreciated by the mind, which has been arrested by its wholeness, and fascinated by its harmony, is the luminous, silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

I’ve always pondered what, if any, is the mysterious ‘recipe’ for creating work that resonates in this way. It’s a bit of an elusive thing, very much the result of letting go and really leaning in to the process of making art. Intention is just the jumping off point. ‘Rules’ tend to get in the way. Yet there are some aspects that ‘arresting’ works share. Sir Thomas Aquinas does a pretty good job of getting close with these suggested attributes for beauty: WHOLENESS (integitas)—the unity of the whole, HARMONY (consonantia)—balance, fitness, symmetry, rhythm of structure, and RADIANCE (quidditas)—’thingness’—a unique product of your thinking. I like this framework because it doesn’t imply rules, rather useful criteria that can be applied to any creation, visual or otherwise—anything in existence, whether man, woman or nature made. It speaks to the soul of a thing; it allows for the inexplicable….yet gives us a standard to aspire to.

When was the last time you were arrested?

The Artist and The Athlete

Toller_1I lost a new friend this week. We had only just met and had one extraordinary conversation, but he made such an impression on me. I was very much looking forward to seeing him again. Toller Cranston was found in his home here Saturday, lifeless apparently from a heart attack, at the all-too-young age of 65. I had initially become aware of Toller as one of the many eccentric, and perhaps best known residents here in San Miguel De Allende.

In addition to six consecutive Canadian men’s champion figure skating titles and an Olympic bronze, Toller introduced a level of artistry into the sport unseen before, paving the way for today’s more balletic performances. The NY TImes refers to him as ‘The Nureyev’ of figure skating and speaks to his contribution to the sport; he is to be inducted into the World Skating Hall of Fame. My experience of him had nothing to do with his skating accomplishments. I knew him only in his reinvented state as an artist. His paintings are mesmerizingly beautiful, informed by a uniquely imaginative and fantastical vision inspired in part by Russian fairy tales.

I was initially blown away by his his over-the top home, experienced on a house tour—chock full of amazing objects—many of his own creation. I then met him at a book signing event held in his studio. I had never encountered such a quiet presence—gifted, prolific, larger than life in his accomplishments yet exuding warmth, accessibility and genuineness. His output was prodigious. He painted 12 hours day, most days. I caught his attention when I asked him if he felt a parallel in the experience of being an athlete to the experience of being an artist. I knew the answer, especially in his case, would be a huge and mighty YES.

We spoke of the discipline required to accomplish anything in both realms. We spoke about the passion and commitment required and the ability to deal with critics and failure. But mostly we talked about FLOW–what it feels like to be ‘in the zone’ in either pursuit. He acknowledged that is what made Toller-the-artist and Toller-the- superstar athlete keep showing up each day to do the work—the intense immersion and subsequent ‘high’ produced from challenging oneself in a realm one is passionate about, every day. He saw them as one in the same. Toller is said to have produced over 40,000 paintings; many of which I have seen. I think his reputation as an artist would be greater had it not been eclipsed by his reputation as an athlete. A very rare thing for one to burn so bright in such seemingly different realms. In his mind it wasn’t such a leap (pun intended).

For a great read about the man who was his own work of art, written by a life long friend click here, or simply Google him. Pure entertainment: YouTube  has some great videos of Toller on ice.

Routine Creativity

zenstonesblogOne of the most important aspects of Creative productivity is striking a balance between disciplined daily routine and remaining open to new experiences and perspectives—flexible and adaptable—so that we can keep our eyes fresh and energy high. Too much routine can be mind numbing, uninspiring and vortex (tunnel vision) inducing; too little routine reduces the chance of flow and any significant productive creative output. While we can find evidence of creative genius unfettered by routine—the Basquiats and Jimi Hendrixes of the world—there is an unsustainable, crash-and-burn quality to those sagas. Even Toulouse Lautrec showed up everyday for his work in a very routine fashion after his nights of debauchery at the Moulin-Rouge.

I was pleased to come across a recent NY Times op-ed article where David Brooks, celebrating President Obama’s recent UN speech, links routine and hard work to Creativity and…world order. He holds up the habits of writers and artists as inspirational and exemplary, citing Mason Curry’s wonderful book on the daily rituals of artists mentioned previously here.  Brooks writes  “Order and discipline are the prerequisites for creativity and daring. Building and maintaining order—whether artistic, political or global—seems elementary, but it’s surprisingly hard”. Indeed.

Henry Miller declared “I know that to sustain these true moments of insight, one has to be highly disciplined, lead a disciplined life”. How do we find this balance? As Creatives we need to ground ourselves in a daily routine–we need to find what time of day we are most productive and build our schedules around that. We need to show up for a few hours every day, no matter what, and simply put in the time at our chosen craft. It has been my experience time and time again that the rewards come, the muses show up, and everything flows from there. It is in the routine that we find the freedom, the inspiration, and most importantly—the staying power to honor the best we have to give—every day.

 

Miksang

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Miksang is a Tibetan word that translates as ‘Good Eye’, and is based on the Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of the late meditation master, artist, and scholar Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Miksang, at its most basic level, is concerned with uncovering the truth of pure perception. We see something vivid and penetrating, and in that moment we can express our perception without making anything up—nothing added, nothing missing. Totally honest about what we see—straight shooting. As we allow ourselves to become more available to the things around us without the biases, filters and formulas often associated with photography, our experience and expression of day-to-day moments becomes more rich and endlessly varied—beyond what we think. One moment, one shot—fully present.

Your iphone can be a powerful tool for this practice. We’re not talking Instagram here…..it’s all about intention, and is available to everyone, all the time. It’s a wonderful way to give your mind a rest, take a break and get your daily dose of flow.

 

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