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Creativity, Springtime, and a Multiplicity of Approaches for Getting “Unstuck”

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I love springtime because of its association with new life, which immediately brings to mind thoughts about creativity. For those with creative blocks, however – whether artists or just ordinary folks like most of us, there are times when the “stuckness” of creative inability colors the world gray; we tell ourselves we’re not special or good enough; that no one is interested in our creative efforts; our creations look, feel and sound ordinary, as though anyone could have made them. Whether we’re simply uninspired to create, having a bout of the “blahs”, or feeling depressed, anxious, stressed or preoccupied with the mundane problems of everyday living or with particularly difficult or traumatic life transitions, our minds seem to have been cut off temporarily from the ability to make the creative connections that lead to works or outlooks that are fresh, new, and innovative. Despite assurances from those close to us that we can still “do it”, that we haven’t really lost our touch or our spark, the disconcerting thought that we might never recover our creativity may occur, either setting off panic or dissolving us into heaps of lethargic apathy.

Creative blocks – and their resolution – are obviously important subjects to many of us:  Googling the term “creative blocks” just now yielded almost 46,000,000 results in a mere 0.16 of a second!  I haven’t read any of them yet, but here are a few of mine.

First of all, it seems to me that in order to create, we need to be completely “into” the process of creativity, rather than being concerned with its ultimate result. That’s why cultivating mindfulness is so important. In his wonderful book, Undoing Perpetual  Stress: The Missing Connection Between Depression, Anxiety & 21st Century Stress, from which I’ve quoted before, author Richard O’Connor devotes a chapter to mindfulness and its connection to creativity. The chapter, entitled “Good Thoughts, Bad Thoughts, No Thoughts”, points out that becoming mindful entails losing our judgmental-ism about our thoughts, allowing them to exist as the mere brief entities in time that they are, observing them without judgment and letting them go. And so I wonder, how many of our ideas never come to fruition because we’ve judged them unworthy? Through our acceptance of and detachment from self-criticism, how many ultimately worthy, interesting and innovative projects might we allow ourselves to work on?

I shared recently with one of my clients that I am at my most mindful when I’m fully engaged in an activity like cooking, washing the dishes or spending time with my cats.  “Washing the dishes to wash the dishes”, as Vietnamese Buddist author and Nobel Prize winner Thich Nhat Hahn says, is an activity that possesses meaning not only because of its outcome – clean dishes – but also because we are involved in and become one with the process of washing the dishes. In so doing, we put brains in the space where, having no thoughts, creativity can arise. This idea resonated with my client and she came to her next session enthusiastically reporting that while washing the dishes one night, she had picked up the egg beater on a whim and beat the soapy froth into a shape which strikingly resembled that of a human brain. “Look!” she had cried out to her husband, who shared in the moment by bringing the camera and photographing the “Bubble Brain”. This client reported that shortly after that experience she had been able to write her first lines in months and had come up with an outline for a short story.

A similar experience occurred for another client while she was preparing a dessert recipe, for an upcoming dinner party, that called for eight egg yolks. Putting aside all thoughts about what the consumption of this scrumptious sounding creation might do to her cholesterol level, she broke the eggs, separating the sunny yellow yolks and depositing them into a narrow white bowl where they almost miraculously formed themselves into a perfect hexagon with a double center. “Look! An egg yolk sunflower!” she had exclaimed to herself. Several days later this person had been able to tentatively foray back into her beloved avocation of still life photography.

Focused concentration is a variation on the mindfulness theme that leads to similar creative and fun results. A musician with perfect pitch, one of my clients often allows himself to get wrapped up in the “melodies” created by routine household activities (the air conditioner, the fridge, the washing machine). He later transcribes the “tunes” into musical notation and expands upon them to create songs or instrumental pieces. Another client, an inventor, often finds that his best ideas occur as he’s fully engaged in polishing his beloved antique car. Since I myself am both verbally and musically inclined, I often enjoy spontaneously composing poetry, setting it to simple tunes, and singing them to my cats. Whether they enjoy or merely tolerate this has yet to be determined, but the point is, again, that spontaneity and being in the moment free us from our inhibitions and allow us to create just for the joy of it.

For those visually inclined, focused concentration on trees, plants, flowers, skies and clouds can develop not only a more finely honed appreciation of the variety of colors within the single categories of “green”, “blue“ and “white“; we may also begin to notice how forms of nature resemble human or animal faces, bodies or other shapes. This noticing may be the genesis for artistic creativity. Being fully present in one’s environment may also reveal delightful “photo opportunities” – like the dragonfly perched atop my car radio antenna, which I noticed as I got in the car to drive home from work one evening, or the scintillatingly green long-needed pine bough and the sticky cones that had been rained down, by a recent spring storm, onto the boardwalk at the substance abuse treatment facility where I worked at the time, providing an opportunity for me to share a “mindfulness moment” with a young artist and musician in the throes of early recovery as we discussed how these could be incorporated into a living work of art.

There are many approaches to the resolutions of creative blocks. If I had to categorize mine, it would probably be a combination mindfulness/experiential/existential stance.  Others may need to approach creative “stuckness” from a cognitive perspective, challenging the faulty schemas that have people believing that we’re not good enough or that anything short of perfect is not acceptable. In the face of tragedy, we may need to do some work at reconnecting with our resilience, recognizing that despite grievous loss there is still life, hope and the opportunity to create new and meaningful experiences. We might need to utilize an acceptance and commitment approach, feeling the resistance to the creative flow and resolving to create anyway. I often refer to this as the “yes, and” approach, as opposed to the “yes, but” thinking that so often keeps us stuck in neutral. We might need to do some work on depression, anxiety, panic or stress if feeling overwhelmed about relationships, work settings or life events has sapped us of our creative urges. And certainly, it helps to attend to our overall mind-body spirit health by meeting our basic needs for food, sleep, exercise and contact with other human beings. All of these contribute to our readiness and willingness to become creative.

Above all, experiment and see what approach works for you. Some of my ideas may resonate for you and others won’t. That’s because we’re each uniquely individual and because creativity means different things to different people.

So, go check out the Google results. If you get some good ideas to help get the creative juices flowing – or already have some – let me know. Above all, have faith in the process. The creative flow is bigger than you, me or any of us. To access it, we need only be mindful, open and accepting!

© Copyright 2011 by Suellen Fagin-Allen, JD, LMHC, PA, therapist in Orlando, Florida. All Rights Reserved.

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  • FT May 2nd, 2011 at 7:29 PM #1

    What is creativity?Is it just writing a poem or painting a picture?No!Creativity can be in anything-From the way you dress up tithe way you arrange the dining table.I have seen people who say “I wish I was creative,all I do is just so plain” but they actually do something very different from the others,something very creative.It’s just that we are stuck up with wrong notions about creativity.It doesn’t have to be something big or even something conventional.Look a little closer,you may well be someone many others would envy you for!

  • Jon May 3rd, 2011 at 4:28 AM #2

    For me sometimes moving to a different location can help me get unstuck and get motivated again.

  • Suellen Fagin-Allen May 3rd, 2011 at 3:56 PM #3

    Thanks to both of you for your comments. FT, I couldn’t agree more. If you decide to mow your yard in a circular pattern instead of in a back-and-forth pattern one day, you are being creative! I definitely don’t see creativity as being exclusively limited to a certain group of people, especially not to only those who make their living being creative. We all have that potential. Jon, I also agree with you. Sometimes just getting in my car and driving from my home to my office using a different route from the usual helps me get creative!

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