"The greatest voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes."
Art is a process of creative discovery—mind, body, heart, and soul united in exploration through one medium or another, be it words, music, movement, or clay. A word has even been coined for the complete integration of self in inspired and divine creative experience: "flow." But how do we get there? How do we find the river of creativity within us? And what keeps us from diving in?
A common line heard by actors at some point in their lives from some well-meaning teacher or director is "You're thinking too much." This often sends the insecure actor into hysterical tears or raging anger—which means, of course, that they have huge reservoirs of emotion and instinctive reaction. Why was that not automatically tapped into in the offending work? Why is that emotion and instinct so difficult for so many people, including artists, to access in their creative work? And is the teacher or director using the best method to assist them in accessing it, to help them grow?
What does that mean, to think too much? Can we think too much? Or does "thinking too much" really refer to thinking that precludes feeling and instinct, instead of integrating it and being informed by it? That is what I believe—it is out of balance. And it is out of balance, I believe, because it is not true thought at all. It is not the real thinking going on in that actor's mind, the complex, textured, layered thoughts that are always evolving and can never be separated from the feeling and instinct which inform them. Instead, it is primarily rules and expectations taken on from society in general, and specifically from families, friends, and teachers. This includes black-and-white ways of defining the world that restrict our individual understandings. It also includes the societally imposed view that we should not trust our own understandings, that there is something wrong with our instincts and emotions, and that we will be more "successful" if we just "get with the program."
As artists (performers, writers, directors, designers), we need to access that rich material that is our instrument of creation—ourselves. And the only way to do it is to jump into the mud, like a child, and feel it, explore it, shape it, discover what is possible. But how do we give ourselves permission to jump in the mud when everything we've learned has taught us not to? When there are voices in our heads screaming, "You'll get dirty," "It's stupid," "It's a waste of time," and "You're too old for that"? By another voice screaming at us that we're a failure if we don't?
To look at how we reintegrate ourselves to be vital, vibrant instruments of artistic creation, we need to look at how and why we became disintegrated in the first place, and how and why that doesn't serve us. Then perhaps we can find ways to use our thinking to participate in the process of growth rather than impede it—to use our minds more fully, so we won't be run by limited and limiting programs.
The Process of Growth
"To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly."
All living things grow. All living things are born and die, and in between—from the beginning to the end of their minutes, days, or years—they all grow. Plants. Animals. People. The fundamental imperative of life is to grow.
Do you think that growth means grueling work, not joyful play? Unfortunately, our education has taught us to separate play and work. Babies don't have to be taught how to grow. They don't separate play from work. They don't even separate accomplishments that are easy to master, like laughing, from those that are more of a struggle, like walking. They interact with the world from a place of wonder, and if they want to accomplish something, they accept that pain and frustration may be a part of the process.
Watch a baby striving to lift his own head for the first time and he will stop periodically to weep and wail from the disappointment of all that effort and all those "failures." What if he gives up? It's an absurd thought—because very few babies ever give up—but what if he does? Then he never lifts up his head. Attempts are necessary. Failures are necessary.
But even at this very early age, society intervenes. Perhaps his well-meaning parents can't tolerate their child's crying and soothe him or distract him with something that causes less anxiety. The baby then learns to choose comfort over struggle, distraction over persistence, and to avoid pain and frustration at the cost of growth. By the time the child is three, what feels familiar and comfortable, what is called normal, may be very far from what is most healthy and natural.
Of course, comfort and discovery are both strong and necessary pulls. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the word "flow," believes that in most individuals, the desire for entropy seems stronger than the desire for discovery (italics mine). But I believe that is because continued growth in people is actively discouraged by society; it threatens the status quo. So it is only the most courageous individuals who manage to keep alive their passion for growth past early childhood.
Our society does not foster the individual; in fact, it's quite the opposite. We are taught early and often by our families, our schools, and our peer groups that we will only be accepted if we relinquish our individuality and take on the mask of conformity. As real thoughts, feelings, desires, and responses are continually suppressed in order to fit in and be accepted, external rewards and validation become more important, both to replace real satisfaction and to justify having betrayed the core self, the deepest needs and desires.
How then can we expect to be artistic and creative in our work, when all of the tools of our artistry are suppressed behind this mask we put on to fit into society? And how do we expect to take off the mask when we're creating, and not at any other time? No wonder some artists turn to the numbing effects of drugs and alcohol. It's a way of suppressing the self without direct conscious effort, leaving the core self unmasked, in the infantile state of openness and discovery. But, of course, it's not a satisfying or healthy way to live in the world.
Is there a way of maturing that is different, that includes the whole self and all the ways of experiencing and expressing life? I believe so. However, it does take effort and courage. And it is not maturity by society's standards. But if we are at our best when we are most creative and artistic, and if our greatest work is done when we are the most integrated and full and open all at the same time, how could that not also be the most satisfying way to live our lives?
Why Does It Matter?
We cannot stop change from happening, but we can stop growth. The result? Stagnation and decay. So to whatever degree we resist change, we stagnate. But no one stagnates completely in all areas. Our programming is effective only to some degree, only in some areas, and we all feel and instinctively react to the world to some degree as well. We wear masks and costumes, but not head-to-toe body armor. We do not judge ourselves completely by those external standards; we still have internal barometers.
As artists, we tap into the richness of ourselves to a much greater degree than most other people, and we become—or have the potential to become—the beacons for another way of being and doing. The more consciously we understand our own processes—as well as our fears and resistances to them—the more we can access the fullness of ourselves in our growth and in our work.
Another important reason to look at this is to increase our capacity for self-assessment, which is not the same as self-judgment. Judgment is one of the benchmarks of externally imposed standards—harsh, punitive voices that chide us for not achieving enough, for not getting results. I am talking about something very different, the capacity to see one's own thoughts, feelings, and behavior from a distance, from multiple perspectives, and to make conscious choices. This includes revering the complexity and uniqueness of each moment and each situation, and not trying to apply arbitrary external standards.
So, towards opening up our ways of seeing ourselves as artists and as human beings in perpetual evolution, I want to look at three kinds of growth: baby steps, quantum leaps, and flights of fancy.
Baby Steps (Practice, Practice, Practice)
"Excuse me, sir. How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
The acquisition of many skills and techniques requires application over time to make a meaningful difference. Progress is seen over extended periods. Sometimes there is a burst of growth, but often you only see the change when you look at it over the distance.
It's easy to get frustrated with progress in baby steps, especially when not only are we measured in results, we're also so geared towards instant gratification. Why practice yoga when you can just take a Valium? Why exercise when you can have liposuction? But every short cut comes with a double cost to one's self. Why? The capabilities of the instrument come from the techniques and skills acquired, as well as the flexibility and persistence accessed in acquiring them. Denying ourselves that process denies us on both fronts.
The acquisition of a new skill (tap dancing, using a computer), the integration of a new way of doing something (body alignment, breathing), or the breaking of a bad habit (smoking, straining when singing) all follow a similar road map. However, the journey itself is never a straight line and rarely without stalls, detours, and even miles in reverse having to retread the same terrain.
Here's my take on that road map: 1) Someone else has to tell us how we're doing it; we can't recognize it for ourselves; 2) We realize after the fact how we've done it, but not while we're doing it; 3) We realize while we're doing it how we could be doing it differently, but we can't shift in the middle; 4) We realize while we're doing it how we want to change it, and an increasing amount of the time we can; 5) We can change it just about every time we're doing it, but we still go to the old, ingrained way first; 6) We can consciously choose, before we start, to do it differently, but it's not automatic; 7) The new way becomes our habitual way.
Although the journey may look different each time, the course is similar. And here is another place where self-assessment without judgment can greatly assist in the process. If we get mad at ourselves for only being at two, we will have a harder time ever getting to five. It may even force us backwards with self-recriminations. Process is process. And if we just stay on the road, we will continue to move forward, each in his own way.
Quantum leaps are the most exciting kind of transformation, but they're also the scariest. Something comes clear to you in a moment that was never clear before, and you are forever altered by it. Quantum leaps often come because of the long-term effort of baby steps, because of unconscious work coming together, and/or because some resistance has been released.
But there is also backlash from this kind of growth. From each transformation we undergo, the world seems to transform as well. We can get frustrated when our lives don't shift to meet our new understandings. All our relationships and interactions are affected as well, which can be very challenging. It's one of the major reasons we resist quantum leaps—our fear of how they will affect everything else in our lives. And although they cannot be controlled, they can be resisted.
Quantum leaps can also come intellectually but not viscerally, leaving us frustrated with a body and emotional system that refuse to integrate this new understanding. But we can teach our unconscious and subconscious selves. We can set up little lessons—learning experiences—that will help us get what we now understand intellectually "into our bones." For example, if that actor from the beginning of this piece knew the whole class was on his side but didn't feel it, he could get up and announce his fears, and the resulting camaraderie and support would help him learn unconsciously what he knew consciously to be true.
Flights of Fancy
Play is the purest adventure in growth and learning—all the senses, all thoughts and emotions, the whole self fully engaged and fully open. Adults try to achieve it, usually in one particular activity that they love, where they feel competent and inspired enough to allow themselves to engage in that way ("flow").
Notice I say feel competent enough to allow themselves, because it is absolutely possible to fully engage and experience flow with no craft, technique, or experience. Watch a baby play and you will see that the only requirement is presence—full, open presence.
In full, open presence, fears and resistances melt away. Anything can happen. It is completely uncontrollable, although it is not out of control. But that's why it can be so scary. There is no mask. You are exposed and vulnerable, and you may do something extremely foolish. Of course, there's nothing wrong with being foolish. The Fool has gotten a bad rap. At court, the jester did not just entertain, but educated and advised the king with his wisdom and insight, however couched in wit and good humor. And The Fool in the Tarot deck may know and understand much, yet still chooses to remain open and willing to leap forward.
Any experience of play that we allow ourselves will serve both in expanding our vocabulary of possibilities and in facilitating our capacity to release agendas and expectations. Dance to old rock 'n' roll records. Sing outside in a field at the top of your lungs. Paint with chocolate pudding like finger paints. Take bowls and funnels into the bathtub and play with water. Run in the rain in bare feet and jump in all the puddles. Crawl around exploring with a baby.
And maybe, with enough moments of play balanced with moments of reflection and assessment, we can get back to a place where it is all play and it is all work and there is no separation—where it is all just the juicy, messy, marvelous stuff of being alive.
Fears and Resistances
"The day came when the risk it took to remain inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."
As adults living in a society with rigid rules and expectations, we usually need either to be inspired or forced to make changes. But if our natural state is one of perpetual growth, then the question is not what gets us going—what inspires or forces us to change—but what stops us? What keeps us from our most natural way of being?
The answer is resistance. Our self-imposed resistances are what keep us from being open every moment to change and growth. So where do these resistances come from? Fear: fear of being wrong; of making a mistake; of feeling stupid; of feeling vulnerable; of getting hurt; of feeling abandoned and alone. And not one of those fears is more likely to occur because we are open—it is only more likely that other people may know about it. Does that mean that we don't mind being miserable as long as nobody knows? Perhaps. Of course, this also deprives us of the opportunity to share it with someone who might share and ease our burden, or help us to see it differently.
That's why crisis can be such a gift, because it cracks the mask, forcing awareness both within ourselves and to others. Of course, that crisis can be unconsciously self-created because of the deep, abiding need for growth. Or we can just choose it. We can decide we want to take the risk to grow. We can learn to take the risk—not because there is no pain, but because the pain is worth it. Not because there is no fear, but because it can feel good to experience the fear and do it anyway—and because doing that over and over again makes it less fearful. That's another way that we can teach ourselves unconsciously, by making those choices even when it's scary, because we know we will learn from them.
There is a term sports people refer to: "the pain barrier." Supposedly it is a threshold that your body reaches in intense physical activity that's actually a trick your mind plays on you to try to get you to stop. But if you keep going past that threshold, it lifts and reveals much greater capacities of strength and stamina. I think that the same kind of "pain barrier" exists emotionally—that our mind tricks us into believing that something is too painful to experience, and so we either run away, or shut down and "endure" it. But I have experienced and witnessed that when you stay, open and fully present, the pain barrier lifts and great resources of courage, strength, and stamina are tapped into.
Why would we want to? Apart from needing that courage to choose growth over stagnation, risk over comfort, discovery over entropy, there will always be dark moments in our lives—horrific circumstances beyond our control—and that courage brings greater ability to maintain grace, humor, joy, and love in those dark moments.
But we have to have faith in the process to not get stuck in resisting change. And back when we were little, we learned both our patterns of growth and how much faith we have in the world by how we interacted with our environment and how that environment responded to us. Those belief systems about the world that were programmed deep inside us are the hardest things of all to change, but if we don't, they will continually make it harder, if not impossible, to make the other changes that we want in ourselves.
It can be done. We can reprogram deeply entrenched beliefs about the world that don't serve us if we choose to, if we are willing to discover what they are and receive support for the process.
Here are a few practical exercises for those of you who want to play with these ideas and make some tangible discoveries for yourself.
1.) Goals/Obstacles/Tasks: Make three columns on a page. Write across the top: "Goals," "Obstacles," and "Tasks." Write one goal in the left column. In the center column, list as many obstacles as you can think of that get in your way towards that goal. Now, in the right column, decide one task for yourself that will address removing each obstacle. If you keep writing obstacles and tasks, you will notice that your page is very full, and that the left column is very empty. Just one little goal you desire has lots of obstacles to address.
2.) Stuck Lists: Make a list of things that get you stuck, triggers that throw you back into your most self-destructive behavior. Make a list of things that keep you stuck, that convince you you're unsalvageable and make you wonder why you should even bother trying. Make a list of things that give you a breather—a space away—without getting stuck. Make a list of things that get you going, motivated. This is all information for you. Now try to use it. Make deals with yourself. When you see yourself sinking into bad patterns, see if you can do it to a lesser degree, or for a shorter period of time. See if you can do something from the "breather" list sometimes instead of always going to the "stuck" list. These small choices will help you feel more control and take you out of black-and-white thinking—that you did it right or wrong, that you're either invincible or worthless.
3.) Play: (See "Flights of Fancy.")
4.) Say It Differently: For one week, take every judgment you carry about yourself ("I can't do that," "I don't like those," "I don't do it that way") and put it in the past perfect tense ("I haven't been able to do that," "I have never liked those," "I've never done it that way before"), and see how many new possibilities open up.
You Can't Get There from Here?
Then there is the frustration when we institute great changes, but still do not get the external results that we hoped for or expected. I have watched person after person go back to the most self-destructive behavior after periods of great growth that did not achieve the desired results. But then, despite the prevalent attitude, it is actually much harder to be successful when you're fixated on a goal. Or even if the goal is achieved—like preparing for a particular event—the new behavior is rarely maintained and the achievement rarely holds.
Unfortunately, even the self-help revolution is goal-oriented. For all the research and theorizing on development in children, there is very little on development in adults, and most of it is goal-oriented. While full of insightful perspectives and great suggestions for making change, it is still primarily about achievement and accomplishment.
Most people want to get their physical and emotional needs met, and the only time they are willing to make changes is when that is threatened, when it seems that only change will accomplish their goals. I believe in the reverse equation. Instead of changing and growing to get one's basic needs met, I believe in getting one's basic needs met to feel enough strength and support and sustenance to continue to change and grow.
There's another drawback with goal orientation. It encourages us to be incredibly harsh with ourselves, particularly about the results of our efforts, which can be self-defeating on the deepest levels even if the goal is accomplished. And, ironically, the people who can be the harshest on themselves about their results are often the easiest on themselves about their participation in the process. That is, they tell themselves they're a failure if they don't reach their finite goals, whether those goals are within their control (like learning ballet in six weeks or losing 20 pounds over one summer) or not within their control (like getting a part or selling a play). Then, because they discount the progress they've made, they use that label of failure as an excuse to let themselves off the hook, so they don't stay in the process of change. And change is a process—a long, inconsistent process. The rationalization usually sounds something like, "Well, I didn't learn to dance well enough to audition with it, so I might as well give up on the classes." Or "Well, I ate two french fries, so I might as well eat everything in sight." Sound familiar?
But what if we could allow ourselves to be gentler about the results—not reaching goals, not being perfect, not doing it the way we wish we would every single time? I believe—and have seen the evidence in my own life and with students, friends, and my children—that we would then be able to be harder on ourselves about the process, and get a lot further.
The key is responsibility: seeing our behavior, owning it, and taking responsibility for it. The more we extend the effort to take responsibility for our behavior, to own what we have done and why, the further we will get towards being closer to how we want to be—not perfection, not every time, but closer.
When my teenage son makes an excuse for why he couldn't do something, I tell him, "The best result an excuse can ever get you is a justification for why you can't possibly get the things you want. It can't ever get you any of those things. So which do you really want, the things or the excuse?"
But there is something more valuable than the things or the excuse. I have learned some of the greatest lessons in my life through instituting major changes that did not have the desired or expected result. It was a gift (although it sure didn't feel that way at the time!). The gift was that it gave me the opportunity to discover that the greatest value was in the change itself.
We can change our behavior. It is one of the two primary ways that we can change our lives. The other way is by shifting perspectives. That's about all that we have control over. And yet, that is enormous. The exquisite beauty and the horrific ugliness coexist all the time. There were people being tortured, murdered, and victimized all over the world before Sept. 11, 2001. There was still great beauty and love in the world on Sept. 12. It's all a matter of perspective, which we choose to see at any given moment, which we allow ourselves to experience. That choice is usually unconscious, because of the externals in our lives, but it doesn't have to be. We can choose at any given moment to shift and experience other sides. That ability to shift perspective—and ultimately to hold multiple, even contradictory, perspectives at the same time—is one of the greatest gifts of growing awareness and consciousness and has nothing to do with getting desired external results or reaching external goals.
Why, then, should growth only be undertaken when a goal is desired and it is believed that some change is necessary to obtain or maintain that goal? Why should that effort plateau or end when the external goal is either accomplished or abandoned? Why should we see the hill as what we have to climb in order to get to the next plateau, where we can finally rest and get comfortable and stay as long as possible?
Our perspective is one of the largest factors in how we feel at any given moment. If there is an objective truth, it is not what we see. We see the world filtered through the lens of who and how we are. And if that's true, it's a bit bizarre that most of our energy is expended on changing our external circumstances and very little on changing our perspective solely for its own value. There is such beauty and joy and discovery on the hills, and in our internal chemistry as we climb the hills. Not just to get to the next plateau, but also to use the next plateau to catch our breath, replenish our resources, and garner our strength for the next hill. Just because it is enriching. And each hill you climb will inform who you are. You will forever have within you what you have experienced.
I keep learning over and over again that the reason to trust in risk-taking is not because you won't be disappointed. You will be disappointed whether or not you risk. We may be disappointed all the time. We disappoint ourselves and each other all the time. The value in trusting in risk-taking is in one's self—that then we will participate more fully and experience more fully. And not having full participation in your own life is ultimately a far greater disappointment.
This article was difficult to write. I was incredibly overwhelmed, and every line I wrote seemed to open up an area that I could have delved into for pages but couldn't and, well, I got stuck. I couldn't write for a few days because I couldn't seem to organize the material into a structure. I felt paralyzed. Then, finally, I coached myself, and suggested I shake up the way I was working. Instead of typing on the computer keyboard and trying to write sequentially, I took a pile of loose-leaf paper from my 10-year-old daughter's notebook and sat with it and a pen and wrote disconnected thoughts for three hours straight. Some were one line on a page. Some were whole pages. Sometimes I got frustrated, not knowing where an idea would go—or if I would even find a place for it—but I kept telling myself not to worry, just to keep writing. At about two o'clock in the morning, I fell asleep, not even rereading the 20 pages I had written. The next morning I sat at the computer and pieced it all together. And, no, I didn't end up using all of the pages, but most are here somewhere.
So persistence alone is not enough. Persistence can just lead to banging your head against the same wall. Flexibility of thinking and the continual awareness of multiple perspectives and approaches are also key. Persistence and flexibility—together they're an amazingly powerful combination. Maybe not to achieve the goals you initially set out for yourself, but to continue to construct a meaningful and creative life, whatever that becomes. As Barbara De Angelis wrote, "The journey between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place."
Shall we dance?
This is the fourth in a series of features Lubin has been writing for Back Stage about carving out a life in the arts, sharing her multiple perspectives as a writer, director, performer, and coach. She also writes a weekly short piece called the "Monday Morning Quote," which is available by email (send your request to be added to the recipient list to firstname.lastname@example.org).