It’s been a long time again, but it’s not been laziness that’s kept me from posting here. Without exaggeration, and without unnecessary detail, I can say that my world imploded. In the space of two days the life I thought I had, vanished. In the months since, I have started from scratch. New home, new job, new friends, new future.
All of us, I’m sure, have occasionally fantasized about picking up, moving on, and starting over. If only I could go somewhere far away, we think. Then I’d be someone new. As though a change of scenery could allow us to throw off our identity like an old coat.
But as William James so memorably put it, even “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Bumping up against that realization can be pretty disheartening, especially if you’re committed to self-improvement.
According to some neuroscientists, over 95% of the thoughts we think each day are the same thoughts we had the day before. In other words, our trains of thought go mostly ‘round the same old track, clickity-clack, clickity-clack. We think in habitual patterns, turning over the same fears, the same hurts, the same if-onlys as the day before, all the while imagining ourselves to be living in the present moment.
This is the reason that willpower, 3 day workshops, and moving to New Zealand are not, by themselves, enough. Our habits of thought are, quite literally, carved into the architecture of our minds.
The good news, however, is that just as old thinking wore its mental pathways through endless repetition, new thinking can, like a spoon against a prison wall, slowly establish new patterns.
Is it easy? Hell no! But I’m here to tell you that personal change is possible, sustainable, and permanent. It may even be survivable.
And even better news? I know a shortcut.
I’ll explain, but allow me to back-up a bit. For those who know me, it will come as little surprise that as my life fell apart one of my main coping mechanisms was beer writing. Not blogging (obviously) but unstructured writing that allowed me to follow my thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations through their wild spins, plummets, arcs, and crashes. Especially the crashes. So many of those.
Quite often, the writing took shape as poetry, perhaps because such feeling needs music in its words. Other times the words came set to music, like scenes from a film.
I recall standing at the rail of an early morning ferry, leaving for a new city and an uncertain future. Grey sky, black waters, and a cold rain against my face. As the engines rumbled and the ship moved into open water, a song from Nitin Sawhney’s “Last Days of Meaning” (oh the irony) played through my headphones. The sliding scenery, the cold air, and the ethereal music caused an overflowing of emotion and I began shouting at the sky. It wasn’t a grandpa Simpson moment so much as a pitiful lament that, turn by turn, spun itself into a storm of creative determination. I was broken, yes, but I wasn’t powerless. Even at zero – at less than zero – I could create something new. And I was starting that journey right there, right then, by expressing my pain and giving shape to some new vision, however vague. Sure, I was acting like a crazy man, but it was more like performance poetry than rage. And it was making me feel so much better.
Of course not every creative expression needs to be so over-the-top. Research has shown that simply journaling our thoughts can have far reaching benefits. One study found that in addition to short and long term psychological benefits (including lower stress and increased happiness), expressive writing had significant impacts on physical health, including improved lung functioning in asthma, reduced severity in rheumatoid arthritis, even better immune response in HIV infection.
If so many benefits came in a bottle, we’d be beating down the doors to buy it.
Really, it’s no surprise that writing – and undoubtedly other forms of creative expression – have such positive effects on our health and wellbeing. The creative act is, by definition, forging something new. If we choose to, writing allows us to switch tracks on our train of thought, and to do it in a way that uses vast swathes of our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. Neuroscientists like to say that the brain creates the mind, but I suspect the mind lives well beyond the brain (including our heart and elsewhere) and that creativity is an organizing, coordinating force. Creative pursuit brings our energies and faculties into coherence, generating what we focus on.
Perhaps this explains both the many potential health benefits of creative expression AND the link between genius and madness. Such is the power of creativity: if used without appreciating its real life amperage, we’re liable to maraud our way through life, laying waste to our perceptions, beliefs, relationships, and health.
So hear the voice of Yoda. How to know the good from the bad? “You will know when you are calm, at peace. Passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” To this I would add, use your creative force to build the positive.
Quite literally, we can choose who we want to be. It takes effort, persistence, and a whole lot of creativity but it can be done. Habitual thinking keeps us stuck in the past. Creative expression allows us to reinvent ourselves and move into a new future. That’s the shortcut. It’s not a panacea, but it’s a valuable tool in a kit of wellness strategies. If your life needs rebuilding, pick up your pen, imagine it completely, then get out there and live it.
Think of some aspect of yourself that you’d like to change (shyness, anger, fear, doubt, etc.) or some past event that haunts you (cruelty, betrayal, unkindness, trauma – sometimes they happen together). Now write about it. Every day. Write with all your heart and none of your critic. Write about how it feels and, more importantly, how you’re choosing to feel instead. Create it. Describe that new you in every detail, right down to the colour of your shoelaces. Let that positive energy become a part of you.
If you need an extra lift, you might enjoy this music playlist I created to motivate myself (you’ll need Spotify): https://open.spotify.com/user/typemaniac/playlist/0w7XZPpxDKLS8fh55utres