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"Until he outran running itself and the sure life of the spirit, moving and not moving, carried on, yes, carried on into the glow that smiles upon birth and death alike. That smiles upon the entire stir-fry of existence." 

Philz Blog

The Self Project and Creativity

May 27, 2015

Creativity is not the sole province of the artist. Work, relationships and making our way through the challenges and opportunities life presents, requires of us all a creative approach to living that recognizes the uniqueness of every situation, no matter how repetitive it may appear. Even as the routines of the day and the necessary habits of the hour pull at familiar responses, the possibility of a fresh and spontaneous approach comes forth. We are jazz beings, called to improvise.

And yet, habits, for better and for worse, have a hold on the decision making sector of our minds. How often do you come home from work tired and sluggish and seek the refuge of sofa and TV rather than go for the brisk walk that would help your energies to recirculate? How often do I feel bored and reach for something to eat rather than sit down with a piece of writing that needs revision. It seems many of us are slow learners.

Few practices illuminate these phenomenon more clearly than those of an artist, whose resistance to engaging the project at hand is often bewilderingly strong. It may seem as though laziness is the cause of our procrastinations, or that a weakness of sorts is the reason that the manuscript lays on my desk untouched. These interpretations amount to a character indictment and the alleged defect takes us down a path of self criticism that is difficult to disengage from.

I can’t tell you how many times I’m told, by perfectly hard working and well-meaning writers and artists, “I’m not disciplined enough.” End of story. Sadly, these self portraits pile up and contribute to a mounting pejorative self assessment that generates emotions which only compound the difficulties in taking creative action. Bluntly stated, “I suck,” can be heard reverberating through the brain.

People say awful things to themselves. Even when looking good on the outside, we are often plagued with terrible self doubt, debilitating self criticism and an unshakeable sense that, “I’m not good enough.” “Something is wrong with me.” “I’m a pretender, not a real writer.” “I should get a day job.” “I’m not worthy of success, or being published, or having my own art show.” And these attacks on the self are not limited to beginning or struggling writers and artists; they hound the most successful and respected of many creative geniuses as well. Insecurity abounds. Check out Virginia Woolf’s suicide note for a tragic example.

What I’m describing is a condition of the self that interferes with creative living and working. Focus on the project at hand is interrupted and interfered with by negative self-talk and the consequent emotional distress. These deflate the needed self cohesion and well being necessary to complete creative work. Rather than actually engaging in writing, the mind is preoccupied with self doubt, endless preliminary tasks or fantasies of grandiose successes.

What happens next further complicates the problem. Sensing a state of insufficiency or lack within, the psyche sets about attempting to repair and restore a feeling of general well being. The compensatory strategies activated to this end are what I call, “The Self Project.”

Let me explain what I mean by quoting from an excerpt from my book in progress, Good and Plenty: Meditations on the Vulnerability of Writers and Artists.

       “What is this Self Project? What are we talking about, and what is its goal? Come with me, back to the beginning of time, I mean the birth of Rock and Roll. For me, it is 1958, and I have discovered American Bandstand, rock and roll and an energy that had been outlawed in post-war Ohio. I was going to be a rock star.  I bet my brother 5 dollars I would have a hit record by the time I turned 13. But a strange thing happened. Rather than going to work practicing my guitar every night, I went to my room and sang along with Elvis, fantasizing my ascent to the top of the charts. I never put in the practice to realize my dream.       

       What was I up to? What the Self Project is always up to: finding a way to overcome feelings of deficiency. Like George Harrison’s famous song, “I, me, mine,” all through the day, something within is busy trying to build up, sustain, or shore up a weakened, not good enough sense of self. This is our compulsion not because we are selfish and self-absorbed, though we may appear that way; it is because we are disconnected from the core self which would provide the necessary strength to accomplish the challenge at hand. “All through the day,” the Self Project is striving to alleviate the vulnerability and suffering of a self separated from its source, and carrying the stamp of inadequacy. In other words, we feel deep shame and struggle to overcome it.

       I have a friend from graduate school who is a brilliant thinker. She has written several books analyzing the politics of our time. Her stuff could make a difference in the understanding of our current political and cultural stalemate. Yet these books sit on her desk in a perpetual state of revision. She writes, and rewrites constantly. She adds new, ever more elaborate and convincing arguments. Her work never reaches the desk of a good editor or publisher because they are never good enough.

       My friend holds on to her work because she lives in terror, convinced of the humiliating rejections that will meet her should she attempt to get this work out in the world. Privately, she imagines her theories being called simplistic, or naive. She is trapped in the never-ending task of protection from further injury to her beleaguered self. How many people do you know who aspire to be an artist and never get out of the gate, or give up when the action heats up? Debilitating shame is more often than not the reason.

       We have all seen works of art or read material by authors whose purpose is clearly to show off. Their work screams, “Look at me!” Everything is designed to show how clever they are. It’s easy to judge the self-aggrandizing efforts of these writers, but when you get to know these people, what you find is something other than a narcissist. You find a frightened, fragile person who has to be noticed to feel real and important. A few geniuses can be both demanding of our attention and incredible artists, but many fall short of realizing their talents because the energy required for the work has gone into meeting the needs of the Self Project, not the art. In other words, they are either busy protecting against risk or trying way too hard to be accepted: that is, perfect.”

Most creative work is a dynamic interplay between the motivation to make art and the urgency to rescue the self. Sometimes this tension enhances the work. Often, the demands of the Self Project undermine the desire to live creatively and or make art. When inspiration is usurped by the necessity to protect or enhance a beleaguered sense of self, creative work is more often than not disrupted.

At its best and most satisfying, creative endeavors originate and move from a state of union; the Self Project from one of fragmentation. Dealing with the disturbances to the self with meditation, psychotherapy, yoga, exercise and/or a supportive, encouraging community of artists and friends can restore the stability of the self such that the “good enough” quality of your existence is steady enough to carry you through the white water. The great poet, Rainer Maria Rilke shunned therapy, fearful that if his demons fled the angels might too. I think this is a needless fear, and in fact, if the negative self attack abates, the angels are more free to soar and the Self Project far less urgent.

My experience, and that of many of the writers and artists I talk to is that the best work comes from a state of being in which the self is forgotten, or absent from self consciousness. Awareness of the self is in the background and the work is happening in a wonderful outpouring of unconscious inspiration and skill into the project at hand. It feels like “I” am not doing the work. Some might call this a no-self experience, I think of it as connection with a core element of self expression. It is like being hooked up to an inner generator.

Creativity is not limited to the art studio or the writer’s desk. Life in all its remarkable diversity calls upon human beings for what some might call optimal adaptation, but what we might refer to as imaginative responses to the infinite variations on the basic themes of life. Whether parenting a child, bringing gusto to a love relationship, participating in social activism, planning a road trip, painting the apartment, or taking the evening walk, as human beings we are called beyond instinct to participate and engage in the unfolding of the moment. What fun!

I begin and end each day walking the dog. Sometimes I go for weeks walking, or trudging the same route. For no apparent reason, on a given morning I might turn right instead of going straight up the hill. I look up, not down, at the activity in the tree tops: how the crows are moving, and the branches sway. Soon, in the creative flow, I begin to disappear and the ballet of life’s awakening brings me into step with the movement of the world. For a time, my worries disappear.

The same is true for the hours at work. One can be tempted by boredom, by the notion of, “the same old thing.” It takes a creative relationship with the moment to sense the nuance and variation of the ever evolving situation of the present that  is born despite our insistence on seeing the world in conditioned ways. In fact, the play between what is the same and what is new, makes for the most fascinating reading.

The Self Project is the distraction that interrupts contact with the inner and outer worlds, thereby creating a separation from our most creative instincts and the perception of the here and now that might speak to that responsive center of engagement. Being present isn’t easy. Opening to what is happening isn’t easy. It requires a capacity of the self to hold steady as the undulations of feeling, thought and sensation pulse through the body. If that is possible, if the self knows its basic goodness, the most wonderful relationship to life is possible. One that is not only effective, but playful and artful.

Here’s another excerpt from the book to summarize.

       “Having lost the connection to the core self, the issue of the day becomes how to compensate for this loss and the resultant feeling of dis-ease. Typically, this involves identifying with a cultural, or sub-cultural ideal, such as the tragic artist, and an emphasis on persona over real self-expression. The result is a divided self and an underlying feeling of shame and insecurity for the authentic self. Human beings are remarkably adaptive in this regard. In fact, much of the creative energy available to an individual may go into establishing and maintaining the compensatory self, not to mention protecting and hiding the fragility of the real self behind a mask of stability.

       With the persona dominating most of life, and the real self confused, lost, and fearful of shameful exposure, a mostly unconscious yearning begins to grow and influence the life of the self. That yearning is for home. Hello Odysseus! Someone, something, please take me home. And it is indeed, a long journey.

       The Odyssey is the literary archetype of the lost self, trying to return to its core. Our modern day version is different and the same, as are our sufferings. We suffer greatly the rejections of our work and there is no getting around those feelings. We suffer greatly the frustrations of the craft, the editing and rewriting and there is no way to circumvent those experiences — many of our greatest artists feel a terrible sense of inadequacy shadowing their lives. But I hope you can see how your feelings are compounded by the overlay of the not good enough self narrative. How the anxious striving of the egoic self to be something and prove oneself acceptable is suffering and separates us from the core self.

       But it is certainly possible to get home. It is possible to go within and reconnect. In fact, the good news is it happens all the time. We simply don’t recognize it for what it is. The presence of our deepest self doesn’t go anywhere when we become estranged. It doesn’t wither on the vine. It is the vine! It is possible to turn your attention to the simplest, most obvious dimension of you that has been obscured by the debris of shame and the mental anxiety that says you are not good enough. A good therapist can help clear the emotional debris from past relationships and meditation practices can help bring to awareness the essence of the inner self that is unscathed by those wounds.”

You and I are smoke from an eternal flame, sparks from a fire that ceaselessly creates life in the cosmos and inspiration within our hearts. That is the claim of the ancient yogic texts and the whispered wisdom of the common moment. The not good enough self is nothing but a mirage, caused by a separation from being, your essence, which is the creative source. When the Self Project is quieted, the light of the real self shines through. Maybe not all the time, but enough to remind us of what truly lies within, waiting and calling for our attention.

Stay tuned for the June edition of Philz blog: Time and Creativity.

Namaste,

Phil

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4 Responses

  1. Nancy Ferrekk says:

    Lovely, Philip 🙂

  2. Phil Kenney says:

    Thanks, Nancy and so good to hear from you

  3. Mary S says:

    This reads like holding a mirror up to my self. Lots of wisdom to take in. Thanks, Philip!

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