A large number of people end up as adults who have little or no sense of themselves as legitimate creators. This blog explores the idea of creativity in its widest sense (painting, dancing, felting, cooking, writing, poetry, film-making etc.) and starts with the question 'how do we inhibit and block our naturally creative response to life?'
Where, then, is the place to be, in relation to your work?
I have tried everything to get away from this discomfort, these turbulent tides, these cold winds that seem to blow from nowhere. This sense, always, that I should be doing more. Doing differently. But mainly, doing more.
Why more? Is it only the outsider's fantasy of the 'serious' artist's life, that knows nothing of the tides, of the rhythms, of the gaps and the frustrations, the dead ends, the non-productivity? David White is brilliant on this....
'But what if we have no recipe to consult? What if we have no grand architectural plans? What if we do not know what we are building or baking? And what if that lack of knowledge of what to do and where to go is debilitating, and therefore, as it is to most human beings, slightly, or for some, deeply depressing? What if we really do have a blank page?
...How do we proceed where there is actually not meant to be a plan, because we are actually working with a way of being, a slowly building conversation between what we want for ourselves and what we are most afraid of?
...Rilke asks us not to try to get around the feeling of stuckness itself but to see it as having as much right to a place in our life as our other free-flowing accomplishments. He sees anything that is real that presents itself to us not as a barrier but as a necessary next step. The inability to write is just as real as the ability to go full steam ahead to the bottom of the page. He asks us to go right into the exile and the sense of burial itself, as if our malady is not the visitation of loss itself but our inability to feel it fully. He suggests, in effect, that our ability to know what we want is first of all, often marked by an early and profound experience of its very absence. In a sense, he is saying that one way to come to love is to do without it for a long, long time.
...People who are serious about pursuing their vocation look for purchase, not for a map of the future or a guided way up the cliff. They try not to cling too closely to what seems to bar their way, but look for where the present point of contact actually resides. No matter what it looks like.
The point of contact is what allows us to take the next step.
...Not knowing what to do, we start to pay real attention. Just as people lost in the wilderness, on a cliff face or in a blizzard pay attention with a kind of acuity that they would not have had if they thought they knew where they were. Why? Because for those who are really lost, their life depends on paying real attention. If you think you know where you are, you stop looking.
...All those imagined guardian angels in their painted guises trying to help human beings through the millenia...'Thanks', we say to the descending angel, 'but you obviously don't understand my position. Look...I will show you, the next step cannot be the one I have to take, because it won't hold me. Please elevate me straight to the top, wherever that may be, and let's get this over with.'... That is the next step, their extended robed hand seems to say, there is no other step and no other way. But you need a different attitude (literally) and a different inclination (again, literally) to accomplish it.
...There is no possibility of pursuing a work without coming to terms with all the ways that it is impossible to do it. Feeling far away from what we want tells us one of two things about our work: we are at the beginning or that we have forgotten where we are going.
Remembering what we have forgotten is a first practical step home; the opening of the tidal gate that brings us into contact with the larger, stronger currents of existence. Exile and forgetting are natural state for most human beings, but so are remembering and recalling. All tasks are completed through cycles of visitation and absence. We should get used to this cycle and integrate it full into the way a work or a vocation is achieved and not hold ourselves to impossible standards that are often quite tedious, giftless states, in any case.
It may in fact be, that the very essence of what individuals have to offer the world is through a close understanding of their weaknesses and blind spots - blind spots in themselves or others. The very dynamic we confront when we feel it is impossible is the very dynamic we will put into the work, a dynamic that will make it distinctive and entirely our own.
...For both Mozart and Shakespeare, despite the breadth and volume of their work, more time was probably spent not writing than writing itself. A work is achieved not by creating a hermetic space sealed off from the world, but nel mezzo, in the middle of everything.
...In building a work life, people who follow rules, written or unwritten, too closely and in an unimaginative way are often suffocated by those same rules and die by them, quite often unnoticed and very often unmourned'.
David White, The Three Marriages, Chapter 6
I've given up all of my attempts to do a daily practice for now. It's hard to explain why, but it's something to do with having disciplined myself for decades in relation to work-related things, to such an extent that I hollowed myself out to a shell. The only thing that seems to work for me now is a kind of unstructured, intuitive wandering.
Freedom, play, exploration - with whatever level of technique I currently have, allowing myself to follow a pulse which I can scarcely feel, and which seems to slither away the minute I try to force it into any kind of shape....
This thing that Kath picked up on about what I called the commitment to the practice seems to go right to the heart of something. I feel that I've picked up from my teachers the need for this commitment, for something that can be carried out over time, in some kind of regular and consistent way. And yet the idea of absolutely sticking to something is also against the spirit of it all, somehow.
Apart from anything else, it's both my impression from them, and my own experience, that one of the points of the whole idea of the practice is that it's enjoyable. It's enlivening, it's surprising, it makes you feel wonderful, alive, connected. It makes your art happen and moves it into new places. So why do so many of us struggle to find a way to do it that works on a regular basis?
If anyone reading this wants to wade in with a comment or a personal report, please do, it would help me a lot. Or email me privately and I'll incorporate your response into another blog post.
I came back from the workshop feeling very inspired by the simple idea that it was clear to me that I needed to discipline the wonderful freedom that I have now set my life up to give me, and also that I needed to free any idea I presently had about the nature of that discipline.
And it seems to be as difficult as ever, perhaps even harder.
The daily practice is a very specific aspect of Paul Oertel's Discipline of Freedom work.
A daily practice is not 'practising your scales'. It's not that thing you do where you discipline yourself to sit down at a certain time, or for a certain length of time, and repetitively work on small corners of technique, over and over again. Of course, this kind of technique work has to be done, but it's not my understanding of 'the daily practice' in the DoF context.
I've written about this before. I wrote about it a couple of times after my first DoF workshop in May 2012. I'm not going to look back at that now, though, I just want to try to articulate what I think it is now.
In a daily practice, you don't practice technique, you set off on a exploration. You give yourself permission to shut out all the 'shoulds' and 'oughts'; either in the rest of your life, or in relation to your art form. You decide what form you want it to take, and you can change it whenever you need to.
It might be quite free, or it might have a structure that you've decided on. Some people work with something like 'three bits of movement, two songs, two sonnets, and then a painting'. Some people only do it for five minutes a day, some do it twice a week. An important aspect of this is that the structure you choose, and the length and frequency of the practice, has to be something that you are committed to doing, regardless of anything else that's happening in your life.
I remember when I came back from the workshop last year sticking to an hour a day for quite a while, and some quite different work started to happen. All the Indian dancers came out of that time. After a while, though, although in theory I really could have kept it up, something about the length of time, and the formal structuring of the practice, started to get fixed, to feel like a thing I had to do. Which doesn't work at all for me. I over-disciplined myself in a very rigid and will-driven way for decades, and these days my body and my whole being go into revolt if I start to do anything that feels forced or rigid (which is one of the reasons that all of this structuring of creative work is so difficult for me).
Because of this old habit of over-disciplining, sometimes I've been forced to see that my practice for the day actually has to be not doing the practice - releasing myself from that sense of fixed obligation. If I'm tired, or stressed, or wound up, my practice sometimes has to be to just STOP, and not do a damn thing. Which frustrates the hell out of me because my default is to want to do this kind of work all the time. Interestingly, though, when this happens, it turns out to be exactly the right thing - when I do stop, I suddenly see that I've been busy and running and not in myself properly at all; all in my head, following lists and intentions and 'have to's. So the practice of not practising is as effective as the practice of doing the practice, if it's judged correctly.
In the end, though, I lost sight of what was a practice and what wasn't. I realised that the practice was a whole lot more complicated than I had thought.
I came away from the DoF workshop this time with a different understanding of what this was all about. For a start, I had tended to see it as a block of time, and one that had to be 'made space for' in the midst of the changing complexities of daily life. Finding that full hour was sometimes pretty difficult. Also, in that conceptualisation, there was a kind of 'in the practice' 'out of the practice' thing, despite the fact that Paul had made a joke on the first workshop about Nancy sending him out to the freezer to get something and him having written a sonnet by the time he came back....
When I got back this time, I suddenly realised that I had missed a lot of musical opportunities at the workshop, where there had been more musicians than ever before. I'd gone with such a fixed idea of my intentions around voice and art, that I'd hardly noticed that my music channel was completely blocked up. I realised on the workshop that my movement channel - which I always assume is the one that comes so easily to me - was also all stuffed up. I could do the movement work, but it felt wrong, disconnected. I was moving my body, I realised, through the moves I used to make last year - a kind of knee-jerk habit that I was no longer fully connected to, something that could happen in the witnessed space, but that didn't feel entirely honest. It was coming from a body memory, instead of from being connected to myself in that moment.
So now I see that one of the points of the daily practice is to KEEP EVERY CHANNEL OPEN. Because I had been singing every day, and painting every day, I was able to properly work in these channels both with others, and when being witnessed. But I couldn't just pick up one of my three instruments with ease, despite all the glorious musical things that were happening.
It's easy to tell myself that I can't play easily in that situation because I don't have the years of training and practice that others have. But actually, though I could do with a whole load more technique (which I'll never get because 'practising' things that are designed to improve me kills all my joy stone dead...) this isn't point. With my limited technical skills, I can play just fine with people who have more training and experience than me, IF I'm open in that channel; if there has been a relationship with the instrument through time, and it doesn't feel like a stranger.
I've found it very hard to 'stay focussed' on movement, violin/viola/mandolin, voice/piano, and painting, equally. One always seems to get the upper hand, in terms of my day to day work. It's as if I can only concentrate on one thing at a time, in a way that I don't fully understand. Perhaps it will always be this way, in terms of things like preparing for a show, or whatever it is that demands most of my attention. But I see now that the practice of all four, in order to keep them all open, is essential to me. I don't think it has to be a a lot of time on any of them, it just has to be that all four are connected with, in some way, every day.
I currently have a commitment one song/voice piece, on movement piece, one painting and one violin/viola sounding a day. It doesn't have to be in specific daily practice time, or for a particular length of time. This seems to have been one of my main problems. It's not, 'go into the practice' and 'come out again', it's 'be in a state of creative awareness off and on throughout the day'. So, draw a bit here, sound or sing in the kitchen, move, if necessary, in a public toilet, or as I go up the stairs (differently!), play a bit of viola while listening to some recorded music.
In other words, STAY AWAKE, in a creative sense, as much of the time as possible....
The reason that this is important is not only so that I can develop my work, allow it to move more freely, encourage different things to relate to each other and produce new forms of emergence....
It seems to be important in relation to what I was writing before about creative energy. If my creative energy, which I see as my actual, biological and physical life force, is not moving through me freely, I don't feel right.
I don't feel right physically, I don't feel right emotionally, I don't feel right psychologically, I don't feel right in relationship, and I don't feel right alone. This practice holds the key to my life.
I want to write about creative energy. Energy is a very difficult thing to write about these days. It's a word that's being used all over the place, by physicists, by environmentalists, by fitness advisers, by nutritionists, by healers, by those who are interested in spirituality.
My use of the word energy is, at first glance, strictly physical, in the sense of energy moving through the body in biological and physiological sense. But this sense of plain, physical energy in the body turns out to be much more complicated and subtle than I used to believe. Can I run for 20 minutes? Looks like a fitness question. Do I regularly go outside and run for twenty minutes? Seems like a time management or discipline question. Do I feel like going outside and running? Oh, is this a mental health question? Or is it an 'I need a holiday' question? How come I can feel incredibly tired and then when the right person phones up and says, 'you wanna meet up?', I suddenly feel excited and exhilarated? How come I can go out feeling the same on two different days, to see two different sets of friends, and come back from one meeting utterly knackered and the other beaming with delight and sit up half the night writing poetry?
And what about driven energy, that energy of the mind and will that can push me through just about anything on this earth, if I've set my mind to it - the energy that can completely shut out my body screaming for rest and fun, and push myself onwards towards some deadline that I've convinced myself I absolutely 'have to' meet?
Recently I've begun to recognise another kind of energy, which I think has been powering all these other energies throughout my life, I just didn't understand it. It's the energy that made me always want to join in to any song I knew, whether on the radio, the tele, at a concert, on the bus; the energy that made me do annoying things with my hand to the rhythm of Indian music; the energy that made me want to leap up from my seat at a concert and seguey into that bit of open space that seemed just made for me to dance in; the energy that made me want to buy up everything in an art shop and threatened to kill me when I saw an exquisite drawing.....
As I've been reviewing my entire life, personality, habits, and foibles, these past few years, I've tried on various forms of explanation for my extremes and the intensity of my desires. Of all possible explanations, the stream that they all seem to keep flowing back to is the idea of pulsing, creative force, which my upbringing and culture have done their best to redirect and suppress. I can frame up the twisted forms this force has been forced to take, the road blocks it has tried to work around, in any number of ways, but in the end it all seems to come back to this.
There's nothing godly, mystical or spiritual about this energy. It's the force of life, the physics and biology of myself as a dynamic system, emanating from and completely enmeshed in the moving tides of a vast universe, which is itself a huge pulsating movement of physical energy. This energy is, by definition, creative. Creativity is what life is, the way that life is able to be life, in the sense that it's something constantly moving and adapting and changing; technically speaking, novelty and change evolve continually form all biological systems in the form of emergence.
As a human, it's my nature to respond to the ebbs and flows of energy that pass through me; for my muscles to start to move if a drum resonates nearby, for sound to emerge from my throat in harmony with frequencies that enter me via my eardrums, for my hand to reach out a pick up a burnt stick and scratch it onto a rock.
The suppression of the flow of these energies has nearly killed me.
Interview With Paul Oertel in Health & Nutrition by Tammy Simon
This issue's Health & Nutrition is taken from an interview with Paul Oertel conducted by Tammy Simon, host of KGNU's Live From Planet Earth. Mr Oertel is a movement and voice specialist, performer, dancer and actor. He is a principal of the internationally renowned Nancy Spanier Dance Theatre.
TAMMY SIMON: You believe that the Earth is in a time of crisis. What do you see as the components of survival, in terms of self-expression and attitudes during this phase? PAUL OERTEL: A critical element right now is for people to look within. To find one's own strength, one's own inner song, inner power and own resources. And to really get that power going. People who have done that are infinitely useful to everyone around them. They have the resources to take charge of the situation and to survive what seems to be unbelievably stressful and changeable energy.
They have the flexibility, the openness and the resources to walk into whatever situation no matter how polluted, confused or negative and survive it. Not by virtue of denial or separation, but by virtue of strength, compassion, understanding, openness, inclusion of the full environment. They have included all of their own emotions so they become an enormous vessel that can embrace all of reality for whatever it is. Therefore, they can become useful to anybody in need or who is hurting. They can embrace them and deal with the situation constructively.
TS: In a world of crisis, what role does art play?
PO: One of the roles, unfortunately, is that of creating distraction arid diversion and confusion. Because of that, art is developing into a very depressed state. Art in a world of confusion is becoming what art often will do, which is simply reflect the chaos. As things are getting in a sense tighter, as people are hanging on and clinging, art is getting thinned out, reduced, concerned less and less with larger issues. But in this situation we need more than ever people who are willing to create an art that embraces the more humanistic and total approach.
TS: What is your belief about the connection between self-expression and healing?
PO: For healing to happen there has to be an absence of denial. There has to be a full expression and full realization of what the person is and what they are feeling. Movement or voice brings the person into contact with that expression. These tools help them make the relationship between the expression and the facade, or the denial, apparent. They break that up so a person can come forth.
Essentially, a healed human being is one in which there are no blocks. Everything flows freely. The person can be breathing in and out, taking in and out, giving off in a way that maintains health. If one is absorbing too much or giving away too much - or what is coming in is blocking in some part of the body or being - then that part can become stagnant. It becomes unhealthy. It begins to die. The person becomes ill. Self-expression is a way of keeping everything in motion, fluid.
TS: What is the edge between being in control so you are technically excellent and disciplined, and just letting go?
PO: Traditionally, the process of skill is one of control. If you use control to get control, whatever you do will look rigid. In terms of the physical body, that process is destructive. That is why many dancers are ruined with knees breaking and cracking by the age of thirty-five. Voices are ruined through the same misuse of control. That approach to control destroys the physical form.
The other way to work with control is through the idea of letting go. Your freedom, or your control, or your discipline is the process of understanding a free flow in your body. That can be a difficult process because it requires letting go on all levels. Of understanding how to let go of the flesh in order to control it, rather than hanging on to the flesh. People are beginning to explore that more and more.
One aspect of the discipline of freedom you are talking about has to do with being able to just be okay with whatever comes.
I feel that is an absolute necessity in these times. In order to survive the whole situation where there seems to be such violent and chaotic and confusing forces at hand, one needs to be extremely flexible in order to survive. If you are rigid when a great force hits you, you'll break. If you are flexible, you can work with it and play with it. Flexibility is the key to the whole notion of survival at this point.
It's hard to have any idea where to start reporting on my recent Discipline of Freedom workshop with Paul Oertel. I thought I might start by posting these pictures which were made while people were working. This is a unique form of painting, for me anyway, that has slowly developed over the last year or so. In the image above, Daniel Mandel was working with Paul on a song - a very melodic and beautiful song - and the work went on long enough for me to go on working the painting for some time. Before this one, he sang a different song which looked like this:
This allowed me to experiment with the feel of the voice and the melody, and the overall flow, before working on the longer piece.
The next one is of a piece of work where someone was dealing with a lot of unprocessed pain, which was an incredible and moving piece of work by Paul and the participant.
The one that follows was a dance piece by two people, moving to very earthy sounding provided by voice and viola.
And this next one was a solo sounding which went on a long journey...
Finally, this was a positively ecstatic dance piece by Paul and a participant that made me feel that I was watching Rumi dancing with his Beloved... Yes!