This year in these blogs I’m thinking about what it means to live as kith—with others, with groups, with all of life—and the ways in which the art we create reflects and influences the values we live by and vice versa. To do so requires a level of permeability to the world that can make us vulnerable, a level of openness that requires that we take the time to listen and pay attention.
It begins in the artistic practices that nurture us—our writing, whether it’s journalling or a novel, blogs or a poetry collection… And in other ways we explore our creativity, sewing quilts, cooking nourishing dishes, creating ceramics, meditating, painting… Some of us chanel creativity into our work or our parenting or simply into the daily rituals of our lives. For me, story, poetry, journalling, making herbal teas, balms and oil blends and the daily rhythms that shape the day, help me make sense of life. My daughter in Indonesia hand-sews exquisite quilts, takes periodic time out to hike long trails alone, journals and makes her own beautiful journals for herself and others. My husband writes, paints, takes photographs and lives in a world of music. So many of us have ways in which art and life meld.
The writer Ursula Le Guin noted that ideas are in the air—inspiration is everywhere if only we are open to it. We find it on a daily walk, in the books you read, in an image on your wall that you return to… It’s in the music we listen to, the support of a particular faith tradition, or simply soaking in a warm bath with a favourite scent that takes our imaginations somewhere else. And we find inspiration in the people in our lives, past and present, known personally or known through their particular art—those who challenge us to think or give us comfort or hope…
Sometimes the most profound inspiration comes from the smallest of moments—simply lingering and connecting with the present and savouring the tiny but profound blessings of life.
Inspiration as a value to live by
We might not often think of ‘inspiration’ as a value. More commonly we might think of ‘courage’ or ‘gratitude’, ‘generosity’ or ‘humility’… But being open to inspiration is part of adopting a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity. It’s part of seeing the ideas that we work with as gifts—all of us stand on the shoulders of giants, known and unknown, whose ideas have worked on us and taken us in new directions. Every idea we have comes from those that came before, that were gifted to us so that we could combine them in new ways. And every idea we have can then become a gift in its turn.
It’s almost Spring. The world is waking up and one of the features of Spring is that the world that constricted to survive the Winter expands again. Where there was stillness, now there is flow. Creativity has its seasons of germination deep in the unconscious, just as seeds germinate deep in the earth, but then comes the flourishing. Inspiration as a value speaks of such flow—it comes in, it goes out, and more comes in… always dynamic rather than static.
Living by inspiration requires that we live open to others both in how we receive and how we give. It asks us to be vulnerable to change and to what might arrive and to trust that the ideas will always be there—in the air.
We are only alive to the degree that we let ourselves be moved
says the poet and essayist Lewis Hyde.
Being open to inspiration is about giving ourselves to this vitality.
Inspiration as a counter to ego
We’ve probably all met artists of various sorts whose egos give us pause and who communicate (whether in their words or presence) that they are original geniuses above mere mortals. But many of the greatest writers and artists are profoundly aware of their debt to all those who gone before—not because they have copied those who inspired them but because they realise how interdependent we are.
Whatever our artistic processes, so many of us have a deep feeling when we look at something we’ve created that it was as though it flowed through us, that we’re not quite sure where it came from. We don’t need obscure rationalisations of this. When we are creating with our editor turned off we go into brain waves that are different than those we normally function with. We go to deep places and let the unconscious surface. In The Gift, Lewis Hyde puts it like this:
The passage into mystery always refreshes. If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies. We are lightened when our gifts rise from pools we cannot fathom. Then we know they are not a solitary egotism and they are inexhaustible.
Over and over again, writers and artists have this sense of going so deeply into the unconscious that it can feel as though someone else wrote the poem or painted the picture…
The poet John Barnie, writing in his ‘Observations‘ puts it like this:
… the genesis of a poem is not the product of consciousness; it emerges from the mind’s deeps and is not in the poet’s control. This is why, when a poet sits down to write, he or she does not know what will emerge. The creation of a poem is a kind of attentive listening; it cannot be forced, and is likely to appear unexpectedly. It may begin as a single line, or an image, which must be written down immediately otherwise the moment is lost.
And it’s not only artists. Mathematicians and scientists who are working creatively and colliding ideas have the same experience. I’m currently reading the two brilliant new novels by Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger and Stella Maris. In Stella Maris, his protagonist, a troubled prodigy, talks about how it is the unconscious that does maths and is better at it than we are when only working with the conscious. She talks about putting a problem away for it to resurface, perhaps over lunch or in the shower, demanding your attention.
It says: Take a look at this. What do you think? Then you wonder why the shower is cold. Or the soup. Is this doing math? I’m afraid it is. How is it doing it? We don’t know. I’ve posed the question to some pretty good mathematicians. How does the unconscious do math?
Being open to inspiration is about being willing to dig deeply and allow our unconscious to do the work. It’s about touching the numinous rather than laying claim to individual greatness. It’s about what connects us. As Lewis Hyde puts it:
Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.
Of course, it’s not magical. We need to hone our craft to be able to work with gifts and the chaos, to be able to collide ideas until they become something beautiful to pass on.
In living as kith, we value inspiration—as gift and flow, as what enables us to become more open, more capable of change and more willing to have an expanisve, abundant mindset.
Inspiration nurtures our vitality and our generosity, it feeds us ideas that teach us that creativity is not about ego and individualism. Inspiration enables us to become a different story.
Here’s to being permeable to inspiration.