imagination and creativity as spiritual practice

It’s worth noting how few of childhoods’ freewheeling exercises—the entertainments that were once synonymous with youthful delight—journey through to adult life. To a great degree, we’ve moved, en masse, toward consuming entertainment via television, video games and social media rather thancreating our entertainment: drawing, making pottery, dancing, singing, and other inventive endeavors. Those same kindergartners who sing, draw, dance, and engage in all kinds of play, will, in only a few years’ time, be streaming their content via iPad screens, which requires less imagination and effort. 


Consider the mind’s two dominant cognitive networks: the first is the default mode network (DMN), a mental state wherein we can visualize possibilities or solve problems, but where we often wind up speculating about unknowable future outcomes or ruminating about interpersonal conflicts. DMN is largely activated by subregions associated with inductive reasoning centers of the brain (the dorsal and medial regions of the prefrontal cortex), which are associated with stressful cognition, such as repetitive thoughts and self-centered worries. The task positive network (TPN) however—activated during creative pastimes and other productive activities—changes the settings of the frontal lobe’s information screening region (the cingulate) and reduces activity in the dorsal and medial regions, relieving excessive ideation and speculation. Hand-to-eye coordinated activities are the gold standard of the TPN. It should be noted that television watching and social networking do not switch the mind out of its default mode so much as offer short-term external distractions; once the show is over, we’re back in the worrying mind. Yet, when we spend time drawing an elephant or playing a musical instrument, the mind literally switches networks; we’re hardwiring an alternative mental state, free from the self-centered cognition that is more likely to release stress hormones (cortisol, etc.).


As the years pass from childhood to adult life, socialization and attendant self-consciousness take a prominent role, and we drift away from early pastimes, gravitating to consumer behaviors geared toward peer acceptance. The early pleasure of singing a song aloud is renounced because the possibility of rejection and shaming by one’s companions is risk too great to take. Even invitations are shrugged off with excuses to avoid embarrassment: “I couldn’t carry a tune if it came with handles,” etc. Likewise, the neurally rewarding states of flow, activated while making a sketch, say, are  abandoned when we quickly dismiss such an activity with excuses like, “I can’t draw a straight line.” In other words, we become self-conscious of how our untrained skills compare to those with refined talents; we beg off opportunities for creative emotional expression, not wanting to appear “naive” or even presumptuous. The fear of abandonment wins out over the rewards of play and exploration. The gradual diminishment of “task positive” activities leaves us vulnerable to the sticky mental states of rumination and speculation. The results are struggles with obsessive thoughts.


Luckily, some of our early pleasurable activities—generally the ones in which we feel a degree of skill or confidence—are brought along with us into our adult years; we may still play an instrument, create jewelry, illustrate, write, and so forth. Perhaps our hobbies even become fully fledged vocations. Yet at this stage another, equally detrimental pattern develops: we place the burden of repairing damaged self-esteem onto these skills; it’s not enough just to compose a tune on an instrument; we feel the need for our creations to be recognized and lauded. What used to bring unconditional states of ease can easily be caught up in the conditional, hit-or-miss, stressful search for approval and unconditional love.


Early abandonment experiences or traumatic events lie at the root of this crusade for attention, leaving us desperate to win fame and approval to make up for early woundings or experiences of invisibility. The need to be approved—accepted by the tribe—can hijack what at one time brought joy. If we draw an elephant or write a song, the drawing has to be hung on a gallery’s walls, and the song must be played before an admiring audience singing along. Worse, we feel a sense of failure unless these activities win financial remuneration; if our novel isn’t published, we’ve failed—despite the untold hours of effort and diligence that went into its creation.


But even if one was fortunate to have received the most emotionally tolerant and mirroring childhood caretaking imaginable, our creative skills can be weighed down by our innate, human existential insecurity. The Buddha taught that the human mind arrives, out of the box, with a certain degree of Avijja, or root delusion, pre-programmed into our operating systems (neural structures); we emotionally process life’s experiences as if we’re under threat, trapped in a survival mode. It’s the legacy of human life the way it was 50,000 years ago. The simple fact is our species has outpaced the brain’s default settings. Most of us are in little daily danger of being eaten, and those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are unlikely to die of starvation. Yet the brain still perceives life within such parameters. And so we all wind up a bit desperate to connect with anything that makes us feel safe and protected—and for the human being, a pack animal by nature, lack of security leads to “people pleasing” at all costs; our desire for secure connection with others is hardwired as the answer to the midbrain’s fear impulses.


Striving to win appreciation runs us ragged and leaves us disappointed. Approval seeking is hooked up with the dopamine reward system. But dopamine is not released for a sustained period; eventually it diminishes and leaves us even more anxious than before we started. Moreover, our midbrain’s reward system is prone to habituation; what triggers the release of dopamine today will bring a yawn tomorrow (note, for example, the neurological work of Clark and Dagher at McGill University). We need greater degrees of recognition to activate less and less dopamine, so we wind up in the dopamine craving cycle, what the Buddha called amsara


The same process of habituation occurs when financial gain becomes motivational. Note how some great musicians and artists market out their hard-won skills in the tawdriest of commercial vehicles—from the distressing artistic debacles of DeNiro’s recent films to the unavoidable mediocrity of Dylan and Springsteen’s later albums. This is why the Dharma identifies such conditional sources of pleasure and security as approval, fame, monetary gain, and ease as “worldy winds”; they blow us about and leave us bereft of lasting reassurance.


At this point, we may experience “disenchantment,” or what’s called Nekhamma in the Pali canon. What we turned to for a sense of completion and safety makes us feel hollow. From this, the passion fades (virago Pali), and eventually we’re released (Pali) from our addictive tendencies. In terms of renunciate practice, such a stage of detachment from what started as pleasant activities (monks and nuns are not encouraged to sing or dance), but for the rest of us such alienation is not always an entirely positive development. We need our pleasant, self-soothing distractions. Giving up our hard-won illustrating skills (for example), simply due to a lack of recognition or recompense, is a needless and extreme toll to pay.


However, there are ways back to the pure recreational joys of authentic creativity that is free of the needless demands of recognition and security. First off, we can allow our spiritual practice to bear the heavy load in repairing low self-esteem and anxiety. When wise friends in a supportive community are available to provide connection and empathy, we’re less likely to fall victim to self-consciousness about one’s singing or dancing skills. I have seen this for myself on Buddhist retreats featuring 5 Rhythms movement exercises. I’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of people who—in their disconnected daily lives—suffer from significant social anxieties find the empowering support and encouragement to dance freely, and even with joy.  Such experiences within one’s own sangha can reveal the false divide between our spiritual interactions and our creative pleasures. As the green Buddhist monk Ajahn Geoff has noted, spiritual life is not another ball we juggle, along with work, exercise, family and other obligations, it is the stool we sit on for support and stability while juggling the rest of life. 


Habits to encourage in the attempt to rediscover the pleasures of self-expression:


Addressing procrastination. It’s important to undo lifelong processes that have linked drama with creativity. We all have our routines: Some of us procrastinate before sitting down to work on a project, building up a sense of “time’s running out.” Stalling creates feelings of desperation and stress, which produces a rush of adrenaline and cortisol. Over the course of our school years and early careers we’ve came to associated this state with “focus,” “getting down to it”—essentially the “productive mind.” Unfortunately, the unconscious strategy of putting off one’s creative endeavors to the last feasible block of time doesn’t make one more focused or productive; it renders us desperate to get things done to alleviate all the tension and worry we’ve accumulated.


Of course, it’s easier said than done to relieve stalling tendencies; entire books have been written on the subject, and many artist’s I’ve known have struggled despite addressing the tendency in therapy. Perhaps the most efficient way through is make creativity a daily, routine practice, wherein we remove the underlying thought that whatever we write, draw, play or perform will have to be of lasting value, will have to be perfect—because  we’ve waited so long to get started. Writing every morning, ingraining it as a ritual as inevitable as showering and brushing teeth also eliminates the issue of “how to begin,” because we’re always already underway. Very often, the results of my own idle writing have wound up in Buddhist magazines or published on various blogs. What’s important and most worthwhile is returning the joy to our creative endeavors, which can only occur when we refrain from adding needless tension.


Separate creative from editorial processes. One of the most common errors we make in turning toward our creativity is asking the question “Is this any good?” or “How can I make this better?” while getting ideas “down on paper” (or whatever medium we work in). According to the insights of the behavioral neurologist Kenneth Heilman (who ran the Department of Neurology at the University of Florida amongst other institutions) creativity is an unusual state for the brain. Its norepinephrine system is radically diminished, resulting in a lower state of frontal lobe arousal, which allows for innovation, uncovering novel patterns and divergent “out of the box” thinking; in addition, knowledge of one’s creative experiences, stored in the temporal lobe, are accessed with greater ease during the creative process. 


The editorial process is a notably different state, requiring higher levels of adrenaline and heightened frontal lobe arousal to engage the orbitofrontal region, which allows the mind to envision how a creative project will be received by other minds (a kind of objectivity, in other words).


All of the above is another way of saying the mind that creates is not the same mind that edits and improves a work; all of us need to have two artists in us: the Jack Kerouac who tossed out ideas without any judgment or oversight, and the T. S. Eliot who labored over each work, meticulously correcting and refining until the final product sparkled with crisp and clean economy.



Learn how to self reward. When endeavors in self-expression have been hijacked by the need to win approval, esteem, or financial security, the creator often forgoes the crucial period of appreciation that our endeavors deserve—and require—if they are to address feelings of low self-esteem. If we develop the unfortunate habit of showing our work to others immediately after its completion—perhaps out of the necessity of schedules—we make its value contingent upon how others receive our work. In doing so, we convince ourselves that our composition doesn’t really exist until it’s been consumed/appreciated by other people. This in turn makes our enjoyment entirely contingent; people can have short attention spans, stressful lives, bad moods, ingrained ideas about what is in “good taste” or “bad.” History is filled with brilliant works of art that have been abandoned due to the closed mindedness of the social circles in which the art was created—remember Joyce, who had to self-publish Ulysses? And even if a work falls well short of brilliance, its creator still deserves to feel the merits of his or her effort before submitting it to the critical whims of others. While the process of appreciation is simple, it’s all too easily lost in the hustle of meeting deadlines: we sit before our finished work and take time to digest the existence, its complexity, risk, resourcefulness, of that which didn’t exist before our labors; we may close our eyes and ask ourselves “how does it feel to have conceived, shaped, addressed and finally constructed something?” Knowing the diligence and struggle each creation—from mediocrity to masterpiece—entails, we allow our heart time to drink in the accomplishment; in so doing, we enrich ourselves and return to the true joys of creative self-expression.