Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Creative Soul as a Monk in This World

I don't recall when I found Christine's site, Abbey of the Arts, but I do remember the relief I felt upon finding such wisdom. I remember feeling like I had found a community of my heart that melded all the parts of me: creative and deeply spiritual.  A place where I could talk about these two things in tandem, rather than acting as if they could at all be separated.

My Jesus Freak self is not always welcome...on the internet or in real life. People assume things...ignorant things...based on little bits of information that do not in any way make up my whole picture.

But with Christine, there is never assumption because she understands that this flattens otherwise round, complex, and multi-dimensional human beings.

Alas, I am guilty of sometimes trying to flatten myself!  Sometimes I wish I could just be one thing. Sometimes I wish I could simply dive completely into Marian devotion, for example, and never come out.  Sometimes I wish Mary would leave me alone (sorry!) so I could just be single-mindedly focused on dance.

But these two things are the braid that is my healthy life, and Christine's most recent book, The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom,  is teaching me how to weave ribbons of appreciation and gratitude and love into that braid -- rather than trying to untangle it.

You can read her blog here and you can buy this fantastic book here.

For a taste of Christine's writing, she has contributed today's post:

Monastic Wisdom to Nurture Creative Rhythms

We have probably all had those times when the creative work just isn’t flowing like we want it to and it seems like such hard work to push forward.  I find a great deal of wisdom in monastic spirituality for creative flourishing.

The Seasons of the Day

The first is an awareness of the seasons.  Monks traditionally pray what is called the Liturgy of the Hours, gathering together up to seven times each day (depending on the community) to sing the psalms together.  It is a way of returning to an awareness of the deep source at the heart of all our work.  When the bells for prayer ring, the monks stop their work and come to the chapel.  No matter how important what they are doing may feel, the Hours take precedence.  It is a way of cultivating deep humility and non-attachment.

Several years ago I read the book Music of Silence by Brother David Steindl-Rast and it changed the way I understand the practice of praying the Hours.  Brother David invites us to consider them as a way of tending to the seasons of the day – that is, the rhythms of rise and fall from the Hour of awakening at dawn to the full heat of noon to the slow decline of the day at dusk to the Hour of unknowing and mystery at night.  I fell in love with his vision and it changed my relationship to this aspect of monastic practice.  I also began to see parallels between the monastic Hours and the seasons of the year.

I brought this awareness to my creative life and discovered a new way to tend to and honor my own creative rhythms.  Just as in the rise and fall of the day and year there is a natural ebb and flow to our creativity.  There may be some days when we feel full of the energy of spring blossoming, with visions and ideas flowing freely.  We show up to the blank page or the canvas and the work feels effortless and full of ease.  Or we may feel the fullness of summer, at the height of our creative powers when everything we create seems to bear fruit. 

Embracing Space for Renewal

Spring and summer are wonderful seasons, calling us to celebrate the fecundity of the world.  But equally important are autumn and winter, those seasons of releasing what no longer serves us, letting go and making room to enter the darkness and mystery of winter.  Sometimes we feel restless in our creative work, we can’t settle into a groove or get anything done.

At these times it is worth asking ourselves whether we are being invited into a different season.  I value sabbatical time in my creative process just as much as the actual work and production, so when I feel like I am pushing too hard I often recognize that I am in a season of releasing, of letting be for a while.  Sometimes this just requires an afternoon or a weekend away from producing, sometimes I need longer spans of time for renewal.

The real key for me is a deep embrace of this letting go which is different than just not doing anything.  I need to enter into the womb-space of incubation wholeheartedly to really experience its power to renew my vision. As David Whyte writes in his poem “Sweet Darkness”:

“When your eyes are tired / the world is tired also. . . Time to go into the dark / where the night has eyes / to recognize its own. . . The dark will be your womb / tonight. / The night will give you a horizon /further than you can see.”

We live in a spring and summer culture where so much energy is spent on producing that we forget the necessary complement to those rhythms, we may feel guilty for not “doing enough” because those messages have become subtly woven into our thoughts.  Or we may panic that our work isn’t flowing as it once was, forgetting that there is an ebb and flow to everything.

The Riverbanks of Creativity

There is another aspect of monastic life which brings more nuance to what I have just shared and that is practice or discipline.  Monks don’t practice contemplation only when they feel like it, or it is going well.  The real test of the practice is whether we can show up when life is full, rushed, or chaotic.  Or when we feel bored and restless.  Many religious communities live by what is known as a Rule which isn’t meant to be a hard and rigid document, but more like the shores of a riverbank, giving direction to the flow of the river, or a trellis guiding the vines upward. 

We are like the river and the vines, our lives need gentle direction and guidance we get through practice.  Monastic Rules are about expressing a set of values and practices a community wants to commit to, the direction they want to grow in.

As artists and creative beings we often need that kind of practice and direction as well.  Sometimes we need to just show up to the page even if we aren’t feeling the energy and desire or our lives are feeling too busy. The practice isn’t so much about producing as it is about cultivating in ourselves the habit of giving ourselves space for expression on a regular basis, for allowing what is deepest in us to come forth.

Creativity and Discernment

Creativity is largely about discerning the place between these – honoring our own inner rhythms and seasons and allowing as much space for being as for doing with the real commitment to discipline and practice, to showing up.  When we feel carried away by the demands of life and don’t have time for the creative work that brings us alive, it is a choice we make, perhaps it has been an unconscious one.  When we practice we make the choice to value this aliveness, to challenge and stretch ourselves.

Consider asking yourself what your own creative rhythms are.  When was the last time you really embraced a space of not-doing, of simply being in the womb-space?  What might shift if you allowed yourself permission to not produce or create for a period of time and saw that as an essential part of the whole creative process?  And what are the practices you commit to each day to give free expression to what is in your heart, without an emphasis on producing?  What are the disciplines which help to offer you support and structure for your creative flourishing?

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE is the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery offering online classes and other resources to integrate contemplative practice and creative expression.  She is the author of several books including her two newest-- The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom and Lectio Divina—The Sacred Art: Transforming Words and Images into Heart-Centered Prayer.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I recently ordered this book and am excited about going home so I can read it!

My problem is that I tend to over-embrace the non-doing side of the coin. Too much time in the contemplating and not enough in the doing. One thing that has always drawn me to monastic wisdom is that balance, and the discipline that helps maintain that balance.