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18 hours ago · · 0 comments

The Goal of Goallessness

Letters to a Young Poet (Chapter 4)

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and…try to cherish the questions themselves…Do not search now for the answers which cannot be given you because you could not live them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.

One of the keys to living creatively requires that we learn to tolerate ambiguity, or not knowing, even as we “trudge the Road of Happy Destiny” (from the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous).

The Christian New Testament defines “faith [as] the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” But modern poet, T.S. Eliot, cautions us to:

“Be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”

Or to put this in contemporary, tongue-in-cheek parlance: “Be careful what you pray for…you just might get it!”

How then are we to set personal goals? Living creatively mandates that we do. But we must also learn to hold our goals lightly, staying open to them morphing into some new , unanticipated direction as a very function of our having initially committed to them.

Poet Rilke advises that we “cherish the questions themselves.” There is a kind of radical trust entailed here, one that reminds me of something my dear friend Steven admonished me with quite recently. “Bobby, we are both deeply into mid-life or beyond, and has God not provided for us to now? Yet today we decide that maybe this is time where the Universe will no longer ‘assist’ us in moving forward?” We both laughed good-naturedly at our respective lacks of faith.

So, if it is to be faith that carries me through life, then in order for my life to be original, as in living out “my original face before I was born” (from Zen), I must hold to a faith that is at least as comfortable asking the right questions as it is in zeroing in on any given answer.

I have found inspiration — in this venture of “faithless faith,” of Rilke’s “living the questions” — by means of an ancient Sanskrit word (from the Indian scripture, the Bhagavad Gita). That word?  Nishkamakarma. First introduced to this term some 35 years ago, ironically in a Christian seminary, and by that school’s founder, this ancient phrase (really) has only ever grown in importance across all the intervening years:

“To do one’s duty, with faith in God, and without attachment to the fruit of one’s actions.”

Going east on a westbound train? A performative contradiction? Or most simply, some incredible paradox?

Something exactly like all of the above. Any less of a goal, and we risk selling ourselves, and our “happy destinies,” way too short.


3 days ago · · 0 comments

Nurturing Your Creative Self

We Are Many

by Pablo Neruda

Of the many men whom I am, whom we are,
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing.
They have departed for another city.

When everything seems to be set to show me off as a man of intelligence,
the fool I keep concealed in my person takes over my talk and occupies my mouth.
On other occasions, I am dozing in the midst of people of some distinction,
and when I summon my courageous self,
a coward completely unknown to me swaddles my poor skeleton in a thousand tiny reservations.

When a stately home bursts into flames,
instead of the fireman I summon,
an arsonist bursts on the scene,
and he is I.
There is nothing I can do.
What must I do to single out myself?
How can I put myself together?

All the books I read lionize dazzling hero figures,
always brimming with self-assurance.
I die with envy of them;
and, in films where bullets fly on the wind,
I am left in envy of the cowboys,
left admiring even the horses.

But when I call upon my dashing being,
out comes the same old lazy self,
and so I never know just who I am,
nor how many I am,
nor who we will be being.

I would like to be able to touch a bell
and call up my real self, the truly me,
because if I really need my proper self,
I must not allow myself to disappear.

While I am writing, I’m far away;
and when I come back, I’ve gone.
I would like to know if others go through the same things that I do,
have as many selves as I have,
and see themselves similarly;

and when I’ve exhausted this problem,
I’m going to study so hard that
when I explain myself,
I’ll be talking geography.

(from Selected Poems)

There is an enormous challenge that arises, at least for me, most any time I engage in creative process. Or better, most any time I even contemplate opening into a creative space…

What do I mean here?

I have noticed over the past several decades of adulthood that — as much as I thoroughly enjoy the products of creativity that tend to emerge from within me, given half a chance — I am also prone to getting highly distracted, or “busy,” right on the cusp of diving deeper into a creative opening. I have (only half-) jokingly told friends and students down through the years that, faced with an opportunity to sit down and compose music or drum alone to my favorite recordings (two of my favorite, actively creative pastimes), I will, perplexingly to me, choose rather to vacuum the floors of my home, otherwise tidy up, or occupy my precious time with most anything else, as long as it keeps me away from doing what it was I thought mattered most to me, namely, giving over to pure creative process.

What gives?

I infer from my above, avoidant behavior, now well-observed over many years, that there is a kind of death that creativity asks of me. It is perhaps a “small death” (French’s “la petite mort”) to my ego-self, but one that is surely big enough to keep my creative self at bay. Notice I introduce here my “creative self.” That gets us right to the crux of the matter…

My conventional sense of self (the ego) certainly prefers its routines. My creative self, on the other hand, aims to “un-routine” things. And therein lies the fatal rub; fatal, that is, to said creative adventuring. The ego-self will stave off creativity’s “un-routining” invitation into newness at most every turn. (Which is why Carl Jung referred to the creative act as an “opus contra naturam,” literally, a “work against nature,” or going upstream against the more comforting familiarity of the ego’s conservative instincts.)

So what is it that I must do, if I am ever to let go into the creativity some significant part of me desires so much?

I’ve come to find certain times of the day most propitious. For example, I write this current post before 5 am, which though crazy-sounding, I realize, is also a time long before my conventional, far more linear mind has yet kicked in…more like the dreamtime than “daytime rules.”

I also think that forming habits or protective rituals — ones which afford me more ironclad time and space for creative emergence — also can help. If I plan a regular, sacrosanct chunk of time, say every Tuesday evening from 6-9, and disallow all vacuuming of floors during that time (!), I’ve found that such habit formation makes for a far more reliable means of actually jump-starting creativity.

But why all the fuss about creativity, the so-called “creative self,” and so on?

Several influential psychological innovators — from Jung to Abraham Maslow to Rollo May to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi* — have all pointed out that creativity, far from being a luxury, is for the human psyche a necessity, not unlike eating, drinking, sleeping, and breathing. In fact, if I wish to do more than simply physical survive (as with the prior four needs), and instead psychologically and spiritually thrive, it may well be that nurturing my creative self stands at the very head of my list of essential weekly, if not daily, priorities.

So, for today…this day: let’s all agree to put aside our vacuum cleaners and 10,000 other distractions, and engage actively, with full intention, in mother invention — creative necessity herself.






4 days ago · · 0 comments

Discerning Feedback

This Day

by Denise Levertov

Dry wafer, sour wine.
This day I see God’s in the dust,
not sifted out from confusion.

Perhaps, I thought,
passing the duckpond,
perhaps —
seeing the brilliantly somber water
deranged by lost feathers and bits of drowning bread —
perhaps these imperfections
(the ducklings practiced their diving,
stylized feet vigorously cycling among debris)
are part of perfection,

a pristine nuance?
our eyes, our lives,
too close to the canvas,
enmeshed within the turning dance,
to see it?

(from Oblique Prayers)

Ever noticed how difficult it can be to tell how well you are doing at something? Shame, and its complementary opposite, grandiosity, tend to muddy the waters…

With shame, any supposed imperfection is amplified and treated as a “deal-killer”: I suck, and that’s that! Grandiosity, which I view as simply the opposite side of the same psychological coin, takes what we do and removes any imperfections from even being considered. With grandiosity, we are no longer human (a temporary antidote, at best, to underlying vulnerabilities or self-doubt).

But wherein then lies humble, hence more accurate, self-assessment?

I believe it starts with others in our lives, others who love us enough to provide gentle feedback while yet never forgetting who we are — and that it’s more important to be loving than only “right.” This latter stance need not preclude honest criticism, but only ever when such critique is accompanied by the compassion which wishes solely to aid us in constructing something even better. And “better” here connotes that emerging, creative product which best mirrors our deepest potentials.

You can tell when someone only wants the best for you. You can also tell when the one offering feedback does so out of a place of fundamental generosity, which includes always remembering who you are.

Jewish theologian Martin Buber would have called this kind of constructive criticism “I/Thou” feedback (as opposed to “I/it”).* The latter reduces us down to something smaller; the former lifts us to something — or better, to someone — bigger.

It takes a special soul to sift through what we have produced or created, to see within it the nuggets of our originality, even genius (in its etymological sense: of one’s own genus or species**), and also hold it up to a friendly, though objective, light. Such light enables us to see order where we may not have before; it points forward when we may have gotten ourselves stuck; it illumines us and our work from 30,000 feet, and mere inches, simultaneously — evenhanded yet open-hearted at one and same time.

I say: seek out such souls, and bask in their loving and clarifying feedback. You’ll be (even) the better for it!



6 days ago · · 0 comments

Your Own Signature


by D.H. Lawrence

I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self

and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time,
only time can help
and patience,
and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance,

realization of life’s mistake,
and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

(from Complete Poems)

I completed my master’s thesis at the University of Southern California over 35 years ago. My research was completed at Andrus Gerontology Center, right in the center of campus. I drove down to USC every morning from my home in Pasadena, enjoying the quaint, circuitous passage provided by the 110 Freeway, then the oldest in all of greater Los Angeles.

My thesis focused on cognition, specifically attention, and what factors might impact its being maintained into significantly older age. My subjects were all volunteers, age 85 or older. They were given tasks to test their ability to pay attention. And my job was to measure their brain waves (through EEG technology) as they completed the above tasks.

Now my hypothesis was that those subjects who believed they had more, rather than less, control over their life circumstances, including the effects of normal aging, would perform better on tasks requiring keen attentiveness. In a nutshell: they would be less distracted.

What I found confirmed my hypothesis, but sadly to me, was not quite at the level of statistical significance that would have made this research eligible to become my first, official publication (instead of a later piece on philosophical anthropology and its implications for psychotherapy).

All of this brings me to today’s topic: how it is that, to live a creative life — across the entire lifespan — mandates our becoming freed from convention, from “what mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.”

My master’s thesis called this “internal locus of control,” where those subjects who maintained a capacity to exercise choice, even as aging’s predictable limitations set more and more deeply in, were also able to fight the tide of normal, age-related cognitive deficits, specifically, when it came to sustaining attention, even (as in my experiment) amidst high levels of distracting stimuli.

Think about it for a moment: what does it take to stay on task for you, especially when there are multiple, competing distractions, inner or outer, all tugging simultaneously at your attention? We have to somehow block out those undenied distractions, and stay resolutely fixed on the task at hand, listening more powerfully to our inner set of intentions than all else. By any other term: internal locus of control.

So it is that the creative ones — and here I don’t mean just artists, but all of us, in potential — carve out an existence that allows for us to leave our own individual mark, whether in loving and/or in living originally, during the precious time we are given in which to contribute.

In that spirit, may I today, and you, too, find a means for traveling through the circuitous path laid before us, keeping our eye on the target, not allowing our essential selves to be drowned out, but rather to show up, truly show up, in a way that each of us, individually, only ever can. Let today be a day of providing your own, utterly unique signature to the world.


7 days ago · · 0 comments

Showing Up with Full Attention

Man the Reformer

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

What is a man born for but to be a Reformer,
a Re-maker of what man has made;
a renouncer of lies; a restorer of truth and good,
imitating that great Nature which embosoms us all,
and which sleeps no moment on an old past,
but every hour repairs herself,
yielding us every morning a new day,
and with every pulsation a new life?

Let him renounce everything which is not true to him,
and put all his practices back on their first thoughts,
and do nothing for which he has not the whole world for his reason.

If there are inconveniences,
and what is called ruin in the way,
because we have so enervated and maimed ourselves,
yet it would be like dying of perfumes
to sink in the effort to reattach the deeds of every day
to the holy and mysterious recesses of life.

(from Nature: Addresses and Lectures)

Have you ever observed a child at play, totally wrapped up in whatever he or she might be doing? Creative imagination, our native birthright from childhood on, has a way of taking us all the way in…where all there is is this present moment, this single activity which absorbs all my attention, and for which there is no other goal in mind than…just…this…now.

And now.

And now.


But we adults live much, if not most, of our lives living in the future (or past), doing things distractedly, often merely as the means to some other end. In the East, this phenomenon is referred to as “the 10,000 things,” insofar as there is simply no end to the many activities that fill up what we call our lives. And the number “10,000” implies infinite demand on our attention, where no single thing could possibly rise up to being the center of my undivided focus. After all, I’ve got 9,999 other pressures to which I must immediately attend!

This we call “being a grown-up.”

Might it be possible to live more as a child, where what we do takes a back seat to how we do it? And where that how takes us into showing up in our too-short lives, truly being present to just this task or activity at hand — operating in the world as if this single thing I am doing, done well, hence with my full attention, somehow contributes to the betterment of the world.

It very well might.

1 week ago · · 0 comments

To Arrive Where We Started

Little Gidding

by T. S. Eliot

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover is that which was the beginning;

At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea.

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned
knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

(from The Four Quartets)

I was just invited yesterday to consider leading a drum circle therapy group at a local treatment center for addiction. I immediately, and gladly, accepted. Why?

Though I have never led such a group, I have been aware these last many years that engaging in creative process — journaling, planting, dancing, yes, and drumming — may well be foundational in overcoming addiction.

If every child is imbued with a native sense of adventure, of imagining into the new, that is, unless or until life beats it out of him or her —leaving that no-longer-child with any means necessary of coping post-traumatically, most often with addictive “props” to hold up the ailing psyche — wouldn’t it stand to reason that a return to life-giving creative instinct ought rightly to be included in any comprehensive program of recovery?

So what if I could invite treatment center clients, themselves all along some continuum of readiness for recovery, into playfully/dead seriously accessing the eager-to-explore child within? And what if that venture might itself spark a remembering of laughter-amidst-creative-play from each member’s own earliest memory?

I have come increasingly to view the inborn creative spirit — and it’s instinctive tendency toward uniting apparent opposites (for some, that is the definition of creative process) — as at the very core of healing. Healing shame which only every quashes creative zest and curiosity. Healing addiction which sets out to either numb out the pain of trauma (and such numbing is utterly non-selective; all else gets numbed along the way) or to bypass natural means of pleasure, like more organic creative pathways, in favor of quick fixes and not-evolutionarily-adapted levels of extreme high’s (virtually always complemented by extraordinary low’s).

So yes, I’ll gladly drum with these clients who, like me (and maybe you), need some gentle and encouraging invitation back into their natural-born creative selves, as if their lives depended on it.

They do.

1 week ago · · 0 comments

Saying Yes to Creativity

love is a place

by e.e. cummings

love is a place
& through this place of love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds

(from Poetry Speaks)

Creativity demands of us a big “yes,” and responds poorly to our more automatic sense of “no.”

Neuroscientists may tell us that our brains have a built-in negativity bias. Evolution, it seems, favors the protective “no” that seeks to protect us from novelty, novelty which might imperil our chances for survival. You can see why Swiss psychiatrist, and student of Freud’s, Carl Jung, spoke of the creative life, of truly becoming an original individual, as the “opus contra naturam” (literally, a “work against nature,” going upstream into “yes”).

To stay open to all possibilities, “all worlds,” may take some discipline. Though perhaps it’s a disciplined “indiscipline” that creativity requires. “Going east on a westbound train,” as a good friend puts it.

What might that look like?

For starters: it is about moving toward life, rather than against, or away from, it. Every, single day. It is to risk making mistakes, then self-correcting, rather than avoiding error. Every, single day.

You can begin to see how shame, or fear of being flawed or defective, can cripple this living creatively.

Enter love. Or self-compassion.

May I learn, through daily practice, how to love the perfectly imperfect being I am — here, perfect in the ancient Greek sense of “whole” or “complete,” that is, both accomplished and a neophyte (always).

Children naturally get this kind of confidence-amidst-temporary-mistakes — Zen’s “beginner’s mind” — that is, until it gets teased or otherwise criticized out of them. The trees swaying outside my window  this morning also get it. The most powerful Santa Ana winds of the year may bend, but not (usually) break, these magnificent eucalypti.

So, for today, may I bend, though not break; risk, thus not shirk; lean into, hence not away from, “all places.” May this be, not a day of fear’s no, but rather, of love’s yes…

Here’s to our living this wintry day “curled” up in creativity’s warming glow.