If you did not take the “Opening What is Closed” course in 2023 and would like a bit wider context for the drop-in creativity sessions, you might like to read the following snippets. They are pieces of the talks edited to be a little more free-standing. Each piece represents one of the key themes that were presented within the course.
A container for pure exploration
The first premise of this course, and for me, it’s really important to underline this, is that I’m positing that it’s really helpful to have a space in your creative life that is only about exploration. That is just about play; that is just about poking at the walls of where you’re constrained and seeing what can open. I feel there’s a strong value to that.
I feel the same way about having a formal meditative practice, on the cushion. In meditation, we have a place where we’re really free to play with perspectives that allow us to move beyond the fixated ideas we have about who we are, what this life is, and what’s possible. That’s really how I see formal meditation practice—a kind of lab for exploring, puncturing, and releasing our fixations and habits of perceiving. Just as I feel it’s essential to our dharma practice to have time to meditate really deeply and really freely in order to expand what is possible within our lives, I also feel it’s extremely helpful to have some time to explore creatively, which is separate from our “regular” creative time. Some space or context in which the primary concern is caring for how it feels to create vs. what we make. When we have some time spent working that way, we become able to open and reveal aspects of our creative process that have been hidden, constrained, or blocked. When we are continually focused on what we are making or trying to make, it’s very hard to get a sense of what is blocked within our process.
What is revealed through this kind of creative process work (the blocks, the challenges, the strengths we have) is gonna look so different from person to person, and I would hope it’s that way, yeah? The terrain we are applying these approaches to will necessarily be different—how we’ve worked in the past, what our strengths are, and what we care about. So I’m not teaching a specific way to make art. No specific method, no specific projects. Instead, I’m sharing what I hope are helpful suggestions that encourage us to do things differently than how we do them habitually. You could also call them rules or instructions. Like meditative instructions, they may tend to reveal some ways we are blocked, blinded, habituated. Like meditative instructions, they aren’t necessarily rules to live by. They are tools that can help reveal how we are blocked or closed down.
So it’s important for me to kind of underline that it is so helpful to have times when we are really free to play, explore—to kind of go for broke and really challenge our habits. We can trust that our own being is going to take what is good from the exploration and leave the rest behind. But if we don’t go beyond our habits and conditioning, we can’t see them, and so we will be constrained by them.
I have no interest in saying what’s the right, pure, best way to make art, to craft, or express yourself creatively. I think of these process sessions as tools to reveal some new possibilities within the ways you’re already called to work. Sometimes, in this context of “spiritual” art making, I’ve gotten a sense that there was some judgment around art made for sale, or fine art vs. commercial art vs. hobby. I’m actually not interested in those kinds of distinctions. You can make art that you never show anyone, which brings dimension and meaning to your life, and that’s what serves you and suits you. That’s wonderful. If you’re a professional artist whose livelihood is dependent on your creative output and that’s how you want to live and that’s meaningful for you, I hope that these kinds of tools will like serve the freedom within the conditions you choose to work within. It’s all good to me.
The “creative process sessions” are what I’ve come up with for this course to hold a place and time that is separate and protected to allow a fullness of creative exploration. They seemed to be helpful last time—maybe not for everybody, but for many people. A chance to use certain rules and instructions that may encourage you to do things differently than you might habitually do. It is almost impossible, in both insight meditation and creative process work, to see where we are stuck until we move way beyond that place. I have a note here, something about the idea of “the art of overshooting.” Like, that’s really how I see meditative practice on the cushion. It’s really going for broke, well beyond our habits or what we think is “okay” or good. A place to create that is really separate, really protected, and really playful and pure, where there is nothing to lose.
Likes, dislikes, and conditioning
I’m going to talk a little about certain demands that we might make on our work. I could also talk about this same idea by pointing to the fact that we all have certain conditioning present that limits where it’s possible for us to explore creatively. This can show up within the creative space as certain imperatives, certain things we’re always drawn to, certain ways we always do things. We may also notice certain internal thought processes that have a kind of self-critical tone, which really shut off certain directions of exploration.
I wanna be really careful talking about this because I think I did a terrible job presenting this part of the course last time. It’s really important for me to say that from where I sit, there’s not too many wrong reasons to make art. Just like there’s no wrong reason to meditate, good will most likely come from it, however you begin. As long as your process continues to feel nourishing and right, there’s nothing wrong, and maybe lots of things that are right coming from that endeavor. It’s not inherently bad to want to like our work, or to hope it is appreciated or useful. So when we look at what conditioning might be present that limits our process, and what demands we’re making of our work that are unhelpful, we’re doing that in the service of releasing what does not feel to be serving us. What does not serve our process; what is not authentic. We want to let go of what is dead versus what is an alive exploration. So different ways we can talk about it, but that’s what I’m pointing to, yeah? We’re like trying to cut off what is unnecessary, unhelpful, or not alive. What lacks depth, aliveness, or a sense of sacredness.
Now, I’m going to say some different things we could think of as demands one could make of one’s work. Some of them may be relevant to you. Some of them you may later discover are hanging out in your psyche and in your process in an unhelpful way, but for now they aren’t visible. What is an unhelpful demand will be different for different people. That’s really important to say. Again it’s what is blocking your process that we are concerned with, and that will be specific to you. What brings contraction, disconnection, and deadness to your process might be something that enlivens someone else’s.
So as an example, one of the demands I made on my work historically was that it be likable, generally likable, to most people most of the time. I do hope you love your own work and your own process. I hope you are touched by your work. But that’s different than what I am pointing to now. I had a demand that my work always be inoffensive, generally palatable, and pleasing to everyone. This demand had cut off whole areas of exploration for me. The dark, the crude, the poorly drawn, the scary, the icky, and the overly vulnerable. Whole large areas of potential exploration were walled off for me because of my fear of making art that was displeasing.
Many people, myself included, have come to a place of reckoning where they realize they are doing so much in their lives just to be liked, just to be generally approved of. And that kind of ongoing, habitual, top-level imperative makes it very hard to live authentically, truthfully, and in a really intimate, connected way. So we may find similar things coming forth as demands we make of our work that cause it to ring hollow—to be pleasing yet utterly lifeless. So, in and of itself, wanting people to like your work is not necessarily bad. But if we’re holding that as a kind of top-level demand for our work, it’s not helpful. It’s a constraint that prevents genuine, authentic, intimate exploration.
Unless you have a totally free creative process, there’s probably some conditioning rattling around in there, some kinds of demands you’re making. Just to say, I don’t personally feel like we should seek to have a totally pure and completely free creative process. But we should feel like it’s good enough. That we can be authentic and alive within our creative process, in a full way. We should feel like we can trust it.
Do we demand that our art be beautiful? Or appear to be made by someone skilled? I definitely had that demand of my own work, yet I never made that same demand of other people’s work. If someone else’s work touched me, or opened something for me, that was more than enough. Does my work need to be deep or important? Again, wonderful qualities for art to bring. But when you place these kinds of judgments on the work while you are working or before you have started, you have cut off the exploration using only the capacities of the mind to judge and prejudge.
So in the context of creative process work, if you are called to draw a puppy, draw a puppy. If you are feeling interested or excited to explore themes that feel simple, or sweet, or overdone, then you should just let yourself start. Let the spirit of a kind of sacred humility be part of the process, and trust what is happening as long as it feels alive to explore in that direction. We cannot see the whole of what needs to come through before it has even started. The creative process is an interaction; it is a process. It is a dialogue between what you already know, what your heart wishes to serve, and what has yet to be made manifest. You cannot judge or think it into happening.
It can be helpful, at times, to just write out your own sense of what you’re asking of your own creative work. What are you seeking to engender, and what do you want from it. And just see what’s consciously present. I can pretty much guarantee for everyone that there will be a mix of deep, essential aspirations and then some junk that you’ve picked up along the way that isn’t serving you. Some things, as you write them out, may be obviously unhelpful just in the writing. “Whose demand is that? I don’t even care about that.” Some may be noticed as the kind of demand that closes things down only later; we’ll sense it’s around within our process at a later time, maybe as we’re working. And some things will forever remain untouched by any questioning because they are truly yours to keep. With this kind of exploration, I really feel if something is yours, if it’s essential to you, that it will remain even if you question it very energetically. What is authentic to you, what serves your process will always withstand any questioning or exploration.
Creativity lessons from Insight Meditation practice…
I want to talk really specifically about a couple of lessons for me that came from my insight meditation practice that really supported the opening of my creative process. So one, when we gain some facility with clinging and releasing clinging and becoming less attached and less invested, we see how clearly our sense of who we are is shaped by how we relate to other things. What they mean to us, what we think of them. There’s a real back and forth there. When there is less clinging and less investment, we begin to open the space to see how the self is defined through what one is in relationship to. And you also kind of see that that’s the primary way we sense the self. Yeah, without being in relation to other things, there’s not a self that can be found in a very concrete way.
So there’s this link between clinging, craving, what we think of things, how we respond to them, how we judge things, how we compare one to another, and our sense of who we are. Our art is part of us, but it’s also outside of us. It’s something we make, and people can see it, judge it, and evaluate it, yet it’s quite close to us. So the more we identify with our work, the stronger the clinging becomes. When I feel really identified with my work (I am my work; if my work is unlovable then so am I), the art-making experience becomes more heavy, fraught, and narrowed.
And that can start to make the art-making process very rigid. When that happens, there’s not a lot of space to play or be in the murk and confusion. We need to have that space to be confused, to fail, to not know, to be lost, in order to explore freely.
So we get more invested, and that narrows the space of exploration—the stakes are higher. We need our work to say something about us or to do something for us. There are lots of different reasons why we might need that. Yeah, we talked a little bit about demands last time. What are the pressures that are coming onto the work? When those pressures come in, the intensity of the clinging rises up and then the sense of the self becomes more built up, and there’s a kind of back and forth that can come that can really close down the process. You know, why is this helpful to talk about? When we can see something as a process through our practice, through our Buddhist practice, it’s like, you know, it becomes a bit less personal. Everyone has conditioning, and so this is mine. It becomes more manageable to work around it or despite it.
I went to film school. I have a lot of friends still in the film industry. That’s a creative career that has very high stakes in a lot of different ways. There’s a lot of pressure involved; there’s a lot of people who want to be in that industry; and there’s a lot of money involved. A project goes on for years. This kind of stuff, for many, can place a very heavy pressure on the creative process. My sense is that one of the reasons that a full-on creative block happens is that the demands of self-definition through creative endeavor become so big that it just chokes the creative process. There’s no play in it; there’s no space in it. This better be good, this better sell, or who will I be? It can be a process that builds over time and becomes more and more and more narrow. Sometimes it closes completely.
So this kind of work of finding a way to come into the creative process differently is kind of poking at and easing the kinds of narrowing that can build over time. One other thing I’ll say is the skills and capacities we’ve developed as meditators can really serve us in our ability to kind of release where we’re very contracted, where there’s a high degree of clinging and a lot of self-investment in the work itself. Because we have already cultivated these skills of working not just on a level of thought but also including the body, including the emotions, including the senses, all of these things.
The other thing I’m going to bring into this discussion is that the supports for clinging and self-investment—all of these likes or dislikes, demands, and judgments that we make—all come from past conditioning. So in Buddhist terms, conditioning is a really broad term. It includes what happened to you yesterday and what happened to you in your childhood. But it could also include, if it’s part of your worldview, your karma from past lives. It certainly would include the condition of being born into a human body. Yeah, because there are certain things that just come from the body and nervous system we’ve inherited as human beings that we could call part of our conditioning and our tendencies.
So conditioning can be seen very broadly in the Buddhist context. For our exploration, I think it’s helpful to think of conditioning as opinions and judgments about our work that we are constantly picking up and accumulating. Feedback about our art, about what is good art generally, what is wanted, and what is popular. And that is just kind of coming into our being, our system, for years and decades. If we don’t have a means to look at that accumulation of conditioning, it will make our creative space narrower and narrower over time.
If I got a lot of praise for something, I may keep trying to bring back that theme or that way of making something—that color combination, that subject matter for what I’m writing, that kind of mood for my music, whatever it is. What’s the difference between a style and something that is like a kind of prison? There’s no reliable outward way to know, you know. But you can discover for yourself what the differences between those things are. What is a style that’s authentic to you vs. what is something that comes from your conditioning, which is closing something off or deadening something within your process? So again, with this work, at least within the process sessions, it’s like everything is up for grabs. Everything can be questioned. And there’s no inherently right, inherently wrong, or always true about it. But when we are looking in a certain way, over time it becomes obvious what is alive and authentic to us and what we can let go of. We can learn to feel the aliveness in our body, our being, and our hearts. And that sense of aliveness is a trustworthy direction to follow.
Sometimes people will say, “Oh, I keep becoming drawn to work with the same images again and again. Is that bad? Is that a problem? Does that mean I’m not open to new things?” Maybe, maybe not. Maybe that repetition, that recurring motif, is a thread of exploration that is meaningful, deep, and necessary. Something is opening through it, something is calling you, and something is being met through the repetition. That image is what is coming forth from the mystery, and there’s no problem with that.
How do we know what is alive and authentic versus rote repetition? Freeing our creative process is a bit like untangling a knotted skein of string. It’s not usually a matter of simply identifying the problem and yanking—or just cutting something out. It’s more often something like going around the whole ball of it with care and slowly opening from different directions. It’s a process that happens gradually (although, as with insight meditation, there are occasionally sudden, breathtaking breakthroughs). This untangling includes working with the intellect, including the wisdom body and heart’s responses, and the dynamism of the work itself. Over time, softly untangling, making more space… revealing what is essential.
Facing the Unknown
Maybe the first thing I’ll say is, you know, this facing the unknown, the womb of potential, the creative void—these are all different ways we can talk about the space we’re crossing when we’re going from what we already know into somehow ways of being, seeing, feeling, and doing that we haven’t already experienced. That, for me, is part and parcel of the creative process. And this same exploration, I feel, is 100% central to insight meditation. Liberation-oriented meditative practice, in some key ways, can be seen as the art of going beyond the known. So some of the images or metaphors I just tossed out might sound good to you; some sound bad, some sound inviting, and some sound daunting. We’ll have our own kind of relationship to the idea of the unknown. Sometimes it’s easy to step into that creative void, and sometimes we feel blocked at the entrance. Like any art, the art of facing the unknown can be learned once we have a sense of our own process around that.
For me, this point, this relationship to the unknown, is where one of the key connections between art practice and spiritual practice lies. If we look at the mystical traditions, the meditative traditions within a given religion, one thing they have in common is somehow describing where we’re stuck and how we sense ourselves as limited. The practices are different, look differently, and work differently within different traditions. But they all must have at least one aspect in common – they must help us navigate the void of the unknown, moving from the known into what has yet to be known, seen, or felt. Spiritual practices, meditative practices, and, I would argue, creativity practice somehow involve crossing from what is already known to what has yet to be known or expressed.
This is a quote from E.E. Cummings, who is a Zen practitioner and a poet, talking about art and what’s important. The quote is “Nothing measurable can be alive; nothing which is not alive can be art; nothing which cannot be art is true: and everything untrue doesn’t matter a very good God damn…” So to me, that’s really speaking to the possibility that we are trying to move beyond the already-known. If we can measure and compare something, it’s recognized or known through what has come before. That’s not what we’re doing when we’re making art or being creative. We are trying to engender a relationship with what has yet to be seen, sensed, or known. We are trying to transcend or escape the place where things are known only through a kind of dead, backward-looking evaluation. We want to be moving towards a kind of aliveness that can only come from spontaneous engagement.
So to create, to make art, we’ve got to be cool with moving beyond what we’re already good at, what we already know, and what we already do. We have to learn to navigate that movement beyond, and we have to find a way to do that in an ongoing fashion.
I’ll just share a little bit from the arc of my own creative life and process in terms of this relationship to the unknown. I’ll be talking just about my painting process. I started drawing and painting as a kid, as we all did. I continued into high school. I was pretty good at it. I was good at it and that helped me find something positive and authentic about me to be identified with. “Oh, that’s Susy; she’s the artist”. Even maybe more touching to me when I reflect back on it, art making was also a place and a space I could go that was a kind of refuge. That aspect of it, to me, very much felt like the kind of spiritual root of my creative practice. I would just go into our garage after school, before my parents would come home, and I would put on whatever music I was into, and I would explore.
And the space that opened there for me, in contrast to all of the pressures and demands of being a teenager and becoming adult, was really important to me. Then I decided to go to art school, a very high-pressure art school. The primary goal of the school, it felt to me, was to prepare you to be gallery artists in New York. Never mind that only a handful of people there would achieve that—it was most people’s goal, it seemed to me. There was not much (if any) discussion about having a personally satisfying creative process.
Things really closed down for me in that space. I was not ready for it. I was very young. The refuge sense of painting for me closed up very soon upon my arrival at art school. If you’re familiar with those kinds of programs, there’s a lot of formal, public critique of student’s work. That’s a huge part of what the program is. They have these big weekly critiques of your work. Nothing was about process; it was all about product in a way that I found very harsh. If your painting failed that week, you were a failure that week.
Where I felt the closing down most acutely and painfully was something about this “facing the blank canvas” stage. Like, what is the next thing I’m going to make? What is it going to be? How can it be good enough and important enough to protect me in these critiques? How can it be good enough to justify my presence?
So I would have this kind of nearly pathological avoidance begin to rise up towards the end of a painting because I didn’t want it have to face the blank canvas. I didn’t want to have to start something new because that new thing had to be better, more important, more profound, more meaningful, and more likely to guarantee success for me in my future career. All the pressure was kind of stacked up, weighing on this one point in the creative process.
Whether or not a full-on block arises in relation to the unknown, most of us have experienced some forms of avoidance around creating and starting new things. Where we feel disenfranchised from creating, even though we know on many levels it brings us real beauty, dimensionality, meaning… all these wonderful things. We set aside some time, a morning, to create… but we never actually sit down to work. So part of the process of softening, opening, and enjoying our creative process is most likely, in part, going to involve finding a way to come into a better relationship with the unknown. Maybe it’s more correct to say to open a range of varied and skillful ways to relate to the unknown. It can feel very easy to blame ourselves for the ways in which our creative process closes… but wonderfully and suprisingly, it’s most often simply a matter of figuring out or learning the right tools in a supportive context. The beauty, surprise, and mystery is already there, always waiting… it’s a matter of learning how to stop covering it over.
Something about my teaching approach here
As a teacher of creative process, I feel that it’s not my business to try to describe what you will find beyond the known and beyond the mundane. The mystic knows they cannot convey to another exactly what they have seen. But they can try to offer tools, directions, and maps of sorts—and hope something comes of that.
I could say something similar about an artist. An artist cannot show you directly “art” in its fullness. They can create something and share it with you with the intention that it opens something in you. Neither the artist nor the viewer is fully in control of the impact; instead, the artist tries to reveal a door where there was only a wall previously within the viewer.
If, as a dharma teacher, I try to tell you what freedom looks like—how it’s going to feel and how it’s going to be—then that’s setting up a kind of barricade for you. If I give the impression that a free person acts this way and expresses their emotions that way, then I’m not really talking about freedom; I’m sharing my languaging of things, my preferences. As a creative process teacher, I prefer not to give projects, prompts, or art methods. I don’t like to suggest materials or do demonstrations. I prefer to leave it really open. So far, I’ve chosen to teach without the sharing of artwork. So no critiques of or commenting on or praising of each other’s work. Yeah, I’m totally, on one level, curious about what people are making and doing. I love art; I love poetry; I love it all. But when I ask to hear about how it felt for you to make it, vs. asking to see what you made, I’m trying to serve your path above all else. And through this sharing of basic principles (the tools of opening what is closed), I am pointing to something far more valuable than my praise or another’s praise. Success comes and goes, but an enlivened and engaging creative process is an endless source of joy and meaningfulness.
When I do share specifics (about how things felt for me, about how they looked for me, about what opened up for me) I try to always do it very clearly from the perspective of myself, my life, my history, my story. Not because I think I’m so great. But because it’s a clear way of illustrating something around the potential impact of these tools. How do they open up in a life? Because they always and only open something up within the specificity of someone’s life and creative process. The tools are meaningless on their own; their beauty and value can seen through what they’ve made possible within an individual’s life and process. In these sessions, sharing about our process is strongly encouraged. There are some things we can see and learn about art and the creative process only through the ways that we feel it frees us.
From my perspective, spiritual art is not defined by how it looks, or whether or not it falls into a certain set of aesthetics. And for me, that’s really important—this was confusing to me for a long time. Not that I thought about it overtly, but I had this kind of idea of what spiritual art would look like. It would be very, I don’t know, very simple. It would be very peaceful. It would probably be very abstract. I don’t know where I got that idea, but I definitely had it. None of these things, I think, are really part of what is interesting about this exploration for me. It’s how can your creative process free you at the root? How does it open your sense of who you are? How does it open your sense of what this human life is?
One last thing to say is that when I teach in this area of art practice/mystical practice I don’t worry in the same way about keeping my personality in view, or sharing on that personal level in the same way I would teaching dharma. I feel more like a co-explorer than a teacher within this subject, or a kind of process coach. Because it’s really clear to me that those drawn to creative exploration already know what is essential, what is primary. They have already experienced being in relationship with the mystery that is revealed through art and through creative process. Even those who long in some way to create but don’t consider themselves artists are being pulled by something they already recognize or remember. What is most valuable in this domain of exploration can only be experienced directly through one’s own creative process.