As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m tweaking the focus of this blog to reflect my study of creativity. The more I learn, the more I’m convinced that developing our inherent creativity isn’t just a fun thing to do, it is an absolutely essential part of living a full and rich life.
But just as creativity can create glorious possibilities in all facets of our life, it can also do the opposite. When we misuse our creative powers we can make our lives unnecessarily… horrible. Unfortunately, I’ve had an abundance of first-hand experience with this, both from myself and others – which isn’t surprising, actually, because it’s one of the things that make us human.
As Russ Harris points out in his book The Happiness Trap, “Our minds evolved to help us survive in a world fraught with danger… The number one priority of the primitive human mind was to look our for anything that might harm you and avoid it!”
Psychology and neuroscience (among other disciplines) have demonstrated how future-oriented thinking has allowed our species to thrive. Somewhere along the line hominids developed the ability not just to fight off snakes and lions and tigers (oh my) but to realize that,
If I go wandering in that part of the savannah all by myself at dusk, there’s a good chance some horrible thing will try to make a meal of me.
So they brought spears, or travelled in groups, or made a lot of big scary noises. In other words, they shaped their behaviour to account for possible threats. It was a handy way to stay alive and it was a profound act of creative imagination.
In the modern day, we retain this handy skill. The problem, of course, is that most of us do not live in perpetual mortal danger. Ravenous beasts seldom attack us at the supermarket. And yet, in a multitude of ways, we continue to live as though the world and everyone in it is out to get us.
Again, this isn’t a failing per se. There are good reasons our minds work this way, but as Dan Zadra is credited with saying,
“Worry is a misuse of imagination.”
When we misuse our inherent creativity we can build a dark reality for ourselves. This doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen in our lives – they do. Accidents, illness and other misfortunes happen every day. People will hurt us. They might even trample our feelings and not express the slightest remorse or offer to change their behaviour.
The key here, though, is that these things ARE NOT THE NORM. Most of the misfortunes that befall us can’t really be anticipated, and so we would be better off dealing with them in the present moment, working directly with what is real. But for the most part, this is not how our unconditioned minds work. Instead, we strive to protect ourselves from possible harm which badly skews our view of reality. A subtext of paranoia can poison our every waking moment. We become conspiracy theorists. Instead of recognizing love and abundance and living in gratitude, we see threat and scarcity and live in fear. Before we know it we’re seeing evidence of the world’s hostility at every turn – even from those we love the most.
The terrible irony is that our pain doesn’t come from anything that’s actually happened. It’s the defending that hurts. And it’s a shitty way to go through life.
Immediate Emotional Alchemy
The good news though is that just as creativity can build a joyless police state in your mind, it can also use its powers to transmute our negative thoughts and emotions into positive, useful energies.
The best long-term tool I know for developing mental and emotional health is mindfulness practice. There are countless resources that can get you started (here, here and here for example). The goal of mindfulness is to develop in internal infrastructure that can process our most difficult and limiting emotions. As Dr. Habib Sadeghi writes in an article on Goop.com,
“If we can’t process and remove our emotional waste, such as anger, resentment, guilt, and fear, it builds up and we become ill, first emotionally, then physically.”
Sometimes, however, we find ourselves in emotional freefall. Pixar’s wonderful film, Inside Out, depicts the emotions of a young girl, named Riley, by embodying them as hilarious characters. At the height of the film’s crisis, Joy and Sadness are lost deep in the dark recesses of Riley’s mind, leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust at the controls. As you can imagine, this does not go so well.
Inside Out is fiction, but its lessons hold true. Sometimes life is unbearably stressful. Our regular coping strategies fly out the window and we fall apart. In these moments we need some way to shift our pain so that we can regain full access to all our emotions. Two strategies I try to use address the outer situation and the inner climate.
OUTER: Psychotherapy has provided a number of excellent tools for getting out from under the weight of our thoughts. One of the more famous (and effective) tools comes from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Called the “Checklist of Cognitive Distortions” it offers a way for us to objectively analyze a situation and see if our thoughts and emotions are grounded in reality. One such list is available here (http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/). Think of a situation that (or person who) has hurt you and run down the checklist. You might be surprised at how many distortions you’ve fallen for.
INNER: This approach is rather more esoteric, but I have found it enormously helpful. I already mentioned mindfulness practice above, and this technique is like a first-aid subset of that. In Buddhism, the first of the four objects of mindfulness is the body (the other three being feeling, thoughts, and mind objects). If we pay attention, we can see that every negative emotion is accompanied by a physical sensation. The pain of betrayal, for example, might feel like a slimy, poisonous pressure, reaching from the stomach to the eyes. In some cases the feeling might be so intense that we actually vomit.
Now use your creative powers: Visualize the sensation as a physical thing. Give it a colour and a shape. Yucky thing though it is, imagine yourself as something much greater and more dangerous. Perhaps a kind of octopus. Now, rather than rejecting the painful sensation, ensnare it. Pull it as close as possible. Examine every aspect. Bind it so tightly there is no possibility for the poor thing to escape and now – and this is the crucial part – begin to tap into its energy. Using an ancient Tantric practice, infuse the pain with your Kundalini or Shakti energy and thereby transform it. In other words, smother it with love. It might scream and yell and complain. That’s fine. It’s no match for the overwhelming power of your octopus love.
Sounds crazy, right? Doesn’t matter. It works.
With practice, it really is possible to use our creative, generative energies to transform our emotions. The point of these practices is to reduce suffering and increase happiness. And more than that:
With mindfulness and creativity we can harvest the positive qualities of our negative emotions.
We can transmute the intensity of desire to give up possessiveness. We can use the dynamism of anger without destroying ourselves or others. We can even use the exhaustion of loneliness without becoming lost.
Now, having said all this, external support remains a crucial part of our spiritual, creative, and psychological development. Working with a qualified counsellor or therapist is invaluable. Overcoming negative habits and learning to see thoughts and emotions as objects that can be changed and used takes practice and support. A lot of it. But the rewards are so worth it:
A better outlook on life, better relationships, and an enhanced creativity that is free to use its powers to make life a wonderful adventure.
I salute the happy genius in you!
[I hope this goes without saying, but if you find yourself in a genuinely abusive situation (physical or emotional), you need to get help. Depending what kind of abuse you’ve been experiencing, you may or may not be able to repair the relationship. But so long as you’re stuck inside an abusive relationship you cannot improve things. Your love for the person may be the very thing blocking you. Get help.]