Here’s an article I wrote for Common Ground Magazine’s May 2015 Creativity Issue. To check out the article as it appeared in the magazine, go here.
It’s true the wind blows terribly here but moonlight also leaks between the roof planks of this ruined house. —Izumi Shikibu
What do the origins of Newton’s law of universal gravitation, the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial all have in common? All are both celebrated acts of creativity and acts of healing in times of tragedy and loss.
While creativity’s power can be seen in the way it transcends the boundaries between science and technology, art and business, and religion and spirituality, there’s one aspect that is often overlooked: creativity has the power to heal.
By examining the origins of creative insight, our drive to manifest those insights, and the celebrated space of creative flow, we’ll unveil how creativity and a creative approach to life returns us again and again to the very source of healing itself: to the primordial wisdom and wakefulness that underlies everything, to the “Self” in Self-expression.
The Relationship between Creativity and Healing
Creativity is a defining trait of being human as well as a skill we can actively cultivate. As an experience, my definition of creativity is simple: creativity is connecting with the world and affecting it in a meaningful way. Connecting with the world, allowing its vibrant aliveness to come rushing in, provides us with insights. Affecting the world in a meaningful way allows us to give form to those insights and share them with others, which is what I call manifestation. Finally, passively connecting and actively affecting at the same time affords us the experience of creative flow—what I call Self-expression.
And herein lie the reasons we’re so drawn to create: as my definition implies, traversing the multifaceted landscape of the creative process fulfills our uniquely human needs, including our need to feel connected, our need make a difference, and our need to experience our lives as meaningful. And consciously or otherwise, all of us are driven to fulfill such needs.
As for healing, every one of us is fundamentally whole and complete, and also sometimes in need of healing in order to re-establish our felt sense of wholeness. This may seem contradictory, but it’s not. Like the ocean, our felt sense of wholeness—our ineffable sense of being part of a vast, interdependent, and luminous cosmos—is the foundation of our awareness, an awareness that is sometimes known as the Self. The Self connects us with wisdom, with the proverbial light bulb beaming above our heads.
Like waves upon the ocean, a smaller, localized version of this awareness, an awareness sometimes known as ego, steps outside of the felt sense of wholeness so that it can interact with the world around it as a seemingly separate entity, which facilitates challenge, learning, and growth. The ego allows us to practice compassion, to carry things out for the benefit of others.
The paths of both creativity and healing, then, play themselves out in the tension between the Self’s orientation toward unity and the ego’s orientation toward separation.
Transcendence, Transformation, and Transmutation
Let’s look at the three core components of creativity—insight, manifestation, and Self-expression—and see how each facilitates healing.
First is the aha moment of creative insight. When we find ourselves in such moments, we experience our awareness rising above the confines of limiting beliefs, habitual patterns, and cul-de-sac reasoning. In other words, we transcend, and in transcending we experience the world in new and enlivening ways, ways that are often beyond words but which are accompanied by a deep, felt sense of truth. In this way, transcendence isn’t really an escape from the realities of the world, but a return to them, a return to the vibrant wholeness that is always, already available—a return, in essence, to the awareness of the Self.
When Newton’s legendary apple fell to the ground, for example, it wasn’t just the moon hanging in the background. The Black Plague was sweeping over London, and Cambridge had closed its doors, leaving the young scholar a castaway from his beloved world of academia. In his contemplative, perhaps melancholy state (a state, by the way, clinically proven to increase creativity) he experienced that whatever was drawing the apple toward the earth and whatever was holding the moon in place was the same, thereby transcending the reigning view of the church that the laws governing heaven and those governing earth had to be fundamentally different.
Transcendence satisfies our need for connection, enabling us to quilt together the seemingly separate and disjointed.
Next is manifestation, the work of taking our creative insights and giving them form. When manifesting, our ego does most of the heavy lifting, enabling us to evaluate, to delegate, and to plan and carry out those plans. Manifestation allows us to heal through transformation. Through our willingness to engage, we feel the impact of our actions transforming the world as well as the push back from the world transforming us. The Golden Gate Bridge, for example, with its lavish art deco embellishments, was erected in the wake of the Great Depression, the grandeur and aesthetic themselves counterbalancing the prevailing sense of poverty and lack. Furthermore, the challenge of building it, funded in part by the New Deal, provided joy, satisfaction, and wages to the previously unemployed.
Some manifestations are very personal and involve us transforming the world in very localized ways. The journal on your nightstand, for example, becomes filled with words as you work to make sense of your dreams. When transformation has a larger sphere of influence, it becomes known as innovation. Truly innovative products, services, and ways of being always have a healing component to them too; they create new possibilities for us to engage the world around us, thus re-establishing wholeness by delighting us, reducing drudgery, or by actively tackling one of our planet’s pressing challenges.
Regardless of scale, transformation satisfies our need to make a difference, as well as our desire to grow and learn through challenge and effort.
Finally, there’s Self-expression, which provides the highest form of healing, a healing known as transmutation. Self-expression combines the passive experience of insight with the work of manifesting those insights at the same time. Furthermore, as opposed to simply rising above or reshaping something, transmutation faces the darkness head on, converting it into fuel for ardent creative expression. Like a magnifying glass gathering the rays of the sun, when Self-expressing, the primordial awareness of the Self is channeled through the ego, through discrete words, thoughts, and actions. Such is seen in the power underlying a great speaker or performer, or the presence of a skilled and caring physician.
Self-expression can also be felt in projects such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which sought not to glorify war but to put visitors into the tragedy of the experience itself. The names of over 58,000 American soldiers who died in the conflict are etched in a stark wall of polished black granite, which reflects your own image as you read through the names, providing both an opportunity to heal and a visceral reminder not to repeat such things. In the words of the memorial’s designer, Maya Lin, “I wanted to cut the earth and polish the scar.”
Like a bolt of lightning joining heaven and earth, transmuting through Self-expression fulfills our uniquely human need to experience our lives as meaningful, even in the face of tragedy and loss, the meaning itself residing not in any idea or concept, but in the fullness of the experience itself, including the fullness of joy and grief alike.
We Are Meant to Create
As fish are meant to swim, and birds are meant to fly, we humans are meant to create, and in doing so, by connecting with the world and affecting it in a meaningful way, to re-establish our felt sense of being part of a dynamic, interdependent, deeply mysterious universe.
No matter what it is that you choose to do with your life, when you do it creatively, when you bring the awareness of both your finite ego and your absolute Self into everything you do, you bring profundity, purpose, and healing.
And that is a gift to us all.
Austin Hill Shaw works with individuals who want unlock their full creative potential and with organizations that want to build cultures of innovation. AustinHillShaw.com
To check out the article as it appeared in Common Ground Magazine, go here.