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.
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.