Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

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.

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.

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.

 

Gaps as Creative Opportunities

EWatt_gaps_1

We all  experience ‘gaps’ in our lives—those in between times where we are not forging ahead with a strong sense of direction, where we feel a little lost, where we are in limbo. Gaps present as periods of ‘not-knowing’ large and small—the voids and upset we periodically experience as we move through life. These are the uncomfortable in-between spaces—old habits no longer serve, all momentum is gone, all certainty of what to do next evaporates. It’s like the too-long pause in a conversation—uncomfortable. The impulse is to fill the gap—either by pushing hard to move forward or falling back on what was once comfortable. We live in a culture that values certainty over all else, so there are external as well as internal pressures to move out of this space as quickly as possible.

Anyone familiar with the process of creating knows this is where real opportunity lies—in those in between or liminal spaces, the ‘gaps’—the not-knowing. This is where creative energy is found. It is only here where new information can enter, where something that has never existed before—that which is valuable and in alignment with the truth of the moment—can come into being. We are speaking about a form of creative intelligence here—‘Intelligence’–from the Latin inter and legere….which mean ‘to gather between.’ The formula for creativity I so often refer to here supports this–the incubation stage is essentially a Gap—an easing off from the knowledge acquisition stage (effortful) or saturation stage so as to allow the subconscious brain to process and make new connections. Our Eureka! moments come to us in gap spaces–on walks, in the shower, when resting. Artists and creators know how to get comfortable with the discomfort of ‘not knowing’.  

Our brains need to re-calibrate to new realities. If we short circuit this process, we never evolve or connect to our creative selves. We stay stuck. Creativity is about getting beyond what we take for granted, pushing through to new levels of awareness. It’s not easy, but we are infinitely richer for it. The good news is that it is only by slowing down, paying attention and engaging with the chaos and confusion rather than resisting it that we can truly move forward. The answers you’re looking for will emerge when you least expect it; when you think you are ‘slacking off’.

And, speaking of gaps and slacking off; I apologize for the huge space since my last posting here—lots going on. Thanks for tuning back in.

Creativity is a Habit

Mason CurryWelcome to the new look of this blog. I always feel September to be the start of a new year; a time of renewed focus and, especially today, a time for reflection. Though hardly idle, (I really wish I was better at that); I did allow myself to drift a bit for the month of August. In addition to the redesign here and re-launching my photography website (more as a visual resume than anything else), I spent some time reconnecting with my original vision for this work around facilitating creativity. One challenge of being a solo-preneur is that we’re often operating in a vacuum—pushing our agendas in isolation, showing up each day and doing the work we think we’re supposed to be doing outside of any structure or system of validation. There are therefore days where we question the rightness of our efforts, which leads to questioning the questions—is this Resistance? Fear? Procrastination?—all those things we’re supposed to push past, daily. And yet….

Any creative effort is ever-evolving and organic with a life of its own. Unpredictability and uncertainty are essential components. Whether starting a new business, writing a book, a blog—pursuing any personal project—the trick is allowing for the evolution of the thing and adjust as we go along. What is true one day may not be true the next. The challenge is to see clearly every step of the way, pay attention to our motivations—Are they still valid?—and keep our energy up. Jonathan Fields has a great post which speaks to this, with some good questions to ask ourselves periodically about any pursuit we’re invested in.

And…once we’re clear….it’s about getting back to work. Creative productivity is a discipline. Countless books have been written on the routines of creative people. One of the best and most recent I’ve read is this one by Mason Curry. He documents the work habits of 161 people—from Benjamin Franklin to Woody Allen (the shower thing!) to Twyla Tharpe. It’s a great read for all the quirky anecdotes (headstand to clear the brain) and commonalities as well—massive amounts of coffee and long walks among the most common. The one thing that was common to almost every single subject was simply showing up everyday, for a period of time, no matter what. All the varieties of methods for summoning the muse were just that–methods based on knowing what worked for them, and that was all that mattered. They knew what they had-to-do and how-to-do-it, day in and day out, whether the muse was whispering to them or not. They knew how to be prepared…just in case. They knew how to get lucky.

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