It is always enriching and empowering to make space for inspiration—to nurture our creative practices and allow for intuition as we listen to our bodies and the earth, as we work with dreams or metaphors or whatever the unconscious brings us…
Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about inspiration and intution in creative work and how we live with these as values. And another fruitful area to help us live our creative processes can be found in invocation. What is it that we need along the path and how do we call in the help that is needed for the journey we are on?
Such help might be from others whose path intersects with our own, from mentors in particular areas—companions who walk alongside us offering their own experience and wisdom whilst encouraging us to nurture our own. It can come from books or family, friends or animals who share our lives. Or it can come from plant allies—trees and herbs and oils. Or perhaps it comes from something internal and deep, something beyond sight of our normal consciousness.
Invoking the unself
An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation. Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that ‘begging bowl’ to which the gift is drawn.
writes Lewis Hyde in The Gift.
This can sound mysterious, but perhaps it is simply about what we are permeable to—in our environment and connections and in our depths. What Lewis Hyde calls the ‘begging bowl’—an open space ready to receive, the philosopher, novelist and essayist Iris Murdoch called ‘unselfing’.
Murdoch defines what we commonly call beauty as “an occasion for ‘unselfing’” — an occasion most readily experienced in our communion with nature and our contemplation of art. She writes:
Beauty is the convenient and traditional name of something which art and nature share, and which gives a fairly clear sense to the idea of quality of experience and change of consciousness. I am looking out of my window in an anxious and resentful state of mind, oblivious of my surroundings, brooding perhaps on some damage done to my prestige. Then suddenly I observe a hovering kestrel. In a moment everything is altered. The brooding self with its hurt vanity has disappeared. There is nothing now but kestrel. And when I return to thinking of the other matter it seems less important. And of course this is something which we may also do deliberately: give attention to nature in order to clear our minds of selfish care.
For Murdoch, writing in The Sovreignty of Good, forgetting the self is what leads to insight and pleasure.
Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. … “Good is a transcendent reality” means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.
Invoking the gifts of others’ art
When we get out of our own way and “pierce the veil of selfish consciousness” in order to join the world, even if the attempt is only ever partially successful, we are more receptive to the nourishment that exists all around us.
Writing about learning to see and love visual art after years of “not getting it”. Jeanette Winterson talks about learning a new language that fundamentally challenged the “I” she thought she was. She calls this learning process “active surrender”:
I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls “the ecstasy of the privileged moment.” Art, all art, as insight, as rapture, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it. Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.
For Lewis Hyde it is the vulnerability of the begging bowl, being open and asking. For Iris Murdoch it is unselfing and for Winterson it is active surrender. All are forms of invocation—inviting in the gifts of others. Winterson notes in Art Objects: essays on ecstasy and effrontery, that when she did this, she changed. Allowing in something new and unfamiliar makes us a different story. Moreover it does so in ways that make leave room for despair and cynicism, even in dark times.
We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector’s item. Art objects.
The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that it is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die.
To write we have to be nourished, morally, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally as well as physically. Art—the work of others—is part of that nourishment. And art of every kind. Visual arts may demand of us that we learn another language in order to open to them, but the written and spoken language that we might think is familiar also requires our attention. I’m always wary of writers who do not read. If we are not open to the riches of words in others then we become parched and our work becomes dull and repetitive.
The worlds of art and literature and music are teeming with food and drink for our growth. We simply have to hold out our bowls.
Invoking the natural world
And it doesn’t stop there. As Irish Murdoch points out, it is not only the world of human-made beauty that we can call in to assist us, but also the natural world of which we are parts. Her moment of unselfing comes when a kestrel flies into sight and, in her novel The Sea, the Sea, she has a wonderful passage about those moments of epiphany that so often happen when we are outside—in a forest or on a beach, looking at the view from a mountain top or gazing at the night sky…
As I lay there, listening to the soft slap of the sea, and thinking these sad and strange thoughts, more and more and more stars had gathered, obliterating the separateness of the Milky Way and filling up the whole sky. And far far away in that ocean of gold, stars were silently shooting and falling and finding their fates, among these billions and billions of merging golden lights. And curtain after curtain of gauze was quietly removed, and I saw stars behind stars behind stars… And I saw into the vast soft interior of the universe which was slowly and gently turning itself inside out. I went to sleep, and in my sleep I seemed to hear a sound of singing.
I’m currently studying to become a herbalist and the more I get to know the plants the more I feel deep intuitive links with particular plants and find myself reaching for particular plant allies only half-aware (or less) of why a particular herb suggests itself as exactly right for a particular person with a particular need. Yet over and over, when I check the reference books, the intuition is right. Is this something inexplicable?
I think it has a lot to do with trusting that we know more than we know, with relaxing into the knowledge that’s under the surface and listening to the unconscious. I noticed something similar recently during a French lesson when I was very quickly needing to translate sentences and fill in the missing prepositions. I found the right prepositions coming to mind and remarked to my teacher that I wasn’t even sure how I knew this stuff. But we do this all the time in our native languages, which we learn without formal teaching.
We do it by listening. We do it by deep attention. We do it by being permeable. We do it by being open to change.
So when we open to the natural world we find ourselves enriched by an abundance of connections, insights and small epiphanies, perhaps sometimes even by major epiphanies.
If we want to write a different story, if we aspire to live a different story, help is there. It’s there in stories handed down and in companions along the way. It’s there in art, music, literature… It’s there in our own depths and unconscious. And it’s there in the world we live in, as damaged as it is, still teeming with beauty and inspiration.
Here’s to having the humility to invoke whatever and whoever we need to become a different story.