At the very core of creativity there seems to be an admonition
that says, "Your own way is essential." This
is true even in a traditional master-student relationship. The
word "expert" seems to be like a fog in which we lose
ourselves. We feel our lack before we have done the essential
work of touching our own inner longing, in other words, we put
the cart before the horse. Creativity has much more to do with
giving ourselves over to our deepest longings than it does with
giving ourselves over to any kind of strategy.
Often the first impulse people have around their creativity
has to do with signing up for school or arranging their schedule
to fit more of every- thing in. The great poetic and mythic traditions
say it's actually the opposite: Creativity has to do with unburdening,
with giving yourself a break, with letting fresh air in through
the windows, with allowing yourself to be lost - profoundly lost,
deeply lost. There is a teaching story out of the Northwest Native
American tradition that would be told by an elder to a young girl
or boy who asked the question, "What do I do when I am lost
in he forest?" In other words, "What do I do when I've
lost my creative fire?" which is really "What
do l do when I forget who I am?" It has been rendered into
modern English in a marvelous way by David Wagoner. Here is the
answer the elder gives:
Stand still. The trees ahead
and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers.
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you.
You art surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
This poem makes three important points. First of all, it reminds
us that the world demands our attention, tremendous attention.
You cannot sleepwalk your way into this, hoping that things will
turn out right. You have to face up to the fiercer aspects of
life and to the eyes glittering out of that dark forest that may
see the selfish part, the "expert" part of you as prey.
The second point is that attention takes place in a very profound
kind of silence. You can feel the silence in the poem. Deep attention
creates deep silences, and in turn the silence feeds the attention
back again, making it strong enough for the third quality arising
in the elder's words. This quality has to do with the intimation
of death: In true creativity the expert hopefully intuits his
death. The elder says that the "I" which places itself
at the center of the world and asks the question, "What do
I do when I am lost?" will not be the "I" that
survives the immensity of the answer. In other words, "What
do 'I' do when 'I' am lost in the forest?" will not even
be answered. There is something very practical in this too, because
the elder says if you really pay attention you will know the bark
that you can use to make your clothes; you will know the place
where the animals go to the salt lick; you will know the rooks:
you will know the different kinds of plants; you will know
the seasons and what grows at different kinds of lessons. "Wherever
you are is called Here." This is as true for a street-kid
in Philadelphia as it is for a child in the Northwest forests.
You pay attention; you pay attention in whatever kind of silence
you've got. Which doesn't necessarily mean being quiet. Silence
here means you haven't already got the answer when you ask the
question. It seems that in the true art and the true poetic line,
the answer lies in the very resonance of the question.
That can't be taught. But I have seen it lived, and then you
can pay deep attention to that life.
To me, one of the definitions of art is that the experience
brought forward is actually alive: the mythic experience is alive
as the art is being performed, or as the picture is being looked
at, or as the poem is being heard. When experience is firsthand
and alive, perception is not about the experience, it is
the experience itself. You are participating when you look at
the chair Van Gogh painted in Arles. You want to sit on it, move
it around the room, rearrange his pipe and tobacco. And what's
marvelous is everyone walks into the painting on their own terms:
it's your own experience, but at such a depth that it belongs
to everyone. What we need to do is to trust our own participation
in the experience. The last thing we need is a person standing
next to us telling us whether the painting is good or bad. What's
necessary is to just look at it as a kind of fierce entrance into
our own being at the moment, and allow ourselves to be taken wherever
the painting takes us.
Part of the tragedy of our own mechanistic approach to the
body and to its creativity lies in the denial of our own fierce
entrance into art as we directly experience it. There is tremendous
pressure on us to think and feel in particular kinds of ways.
Huge hierarchies, enormous grants, and entire university departments
depend on particular ways of perception. Our investment in secondhand
experience far outweighs our willingness to trust our own direct
participation. I think it is a cruelty we have learned to inflict
upon ourselves because we somehow believe we do not deserve the
best-the best being not material success but our own grief,
our own joy, our own mistakes. Our own knowledge,
no matter how small that may seem. These are the best things we
possess, if we possess anything, but we have shamed ourselves
out of our own firsthand experience.
The first poem in my last book, Where Many Rivers Meet.
is called simply "Enough." It's only eight lines
long and it deals with the difficulty of stepping into the gravity
well of our own experience and accepting that what we bring to
the blank page, to the open page must be enough, simply because
it is ours. If we are going to write a poem or a prose piece,
we have the whole weight of English literature on our shoulders,
including Yeats, Wordsworth, Shakespeare - way back to Dante,
and the anonymous author of Beowulf - and we sit down and we feel
we do not have enough. But the tradition tells us again and again
that exactly what we have, exactly our experience, is the only
place we can start. Now of course this is just the beginning;
there is a long, hard road to mastery. The sorrow seems to lie
in the way we refuse to begin that road. We will not say, "Enough!".
Enough. These few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
This opening to the life
we have refused
again and again
The entire mytho-poetic tradition spends a great deal of time
trying to get this through to us! What would it be like if you
said everything m your life is enough? Even if it's just the thought
that you cannot go on. There is a step even in that, perhaps especially
in that. No one else can experience the feeling that you cannot
take another step the way you can experience it. That's
your gift. You feel it. It opens up, blossoms into
something else. You find the door to your deeper longings. You
only have to crack the door slightly for the wind to whip[p it
straight open. And so poetry, in some ways, is building the facility
to do that. You're trying to surprise yourself: you're trying
to build your own desire. The desire for your own true home.
The key to your creativity comes through giving yourself wholly
over to your life as it is now. That the next step appears only
through that fiery, gate. Too often we try to strategize
our way out of our predicaments. We might say, "I'11 buy
myself a small country, home with a study and desk and birds outside
the window and there l will write The Great American Novel."
Unfortunately this is only part of you speaking, and it's the
part that's trying to arrange things. It is only a small
portion of the vast inner ecology of the quietly desperate man
or woman driving through the smog in Oakland, trying to get to
If you look at why we have a large mortgage, why we are commuting
to work an hour and a half every morning, why we are putting up
with the exigencies of our particular workplace or corporation.
it's usually because we have some strange beckoning intuition
of a time when all will resolve itself, and we will find ourselves
in the Arcadian and Elysian fields of just pure presence - that
one day we will muddle through to this restful presence of just
being sat by the fire playing with the children. Unfortunately,
this doesn't seem to be true; a central part of life seems to
be reconciling oneself with the irreconcilable - with "being,"
as the great German poet Rilke put it, "the rest between
two notes that are somehow always in discord." What seems
to be true is that we must find that pure presence in resting
into our lives as they are now, with all their ragged edges. How
we do that seems to be the really strong question.
My experience is that poetry. and all the great artistic and
contemplative traditions, can be of marvelously precise and detailed
help in that. There's a mytho-poetic dimension to life which we
ignore at our peril. If there's a precise way of functioning in
the outer empirical world, there's a precise way of functioning
in the inner intuitive world, and unless those two come together,
we lead very sorrowful and sorry lives. The precise direction
of the inner world at this point seems to say that you do
not do the work of changing; you feed and nourish your longing
in whatever way you can and then the longing does the work.
It's all storytelling, really We're storytelling now. When
people arc listening, they're listening for the story. The question
is, "Is the story worth listening to?" Is our own story
worth listening to? I think the tremendous thirst we experienced
around Joseph Campbell's work was a sudden remembrance of the
great story in which we're al involved. But the question remains,
can you tell it? Can you tell it in such a way that you know your
place in the story?
That story just as prescient and just as important for person
commuting to work in Oakland as it for the artist in the marvelously
enormous studio in New York or the writer in some wonderful hermitage
out in the wilds in the mountains. There's no difference in the
questioning. They're both asking the same thing.
There is this classical image, which we love to nurture, of
the artist as a pained and slightly gnarled individual who does
not share our challenges in life but some special kinds of challenges.
However, I think it's much more the other way. The person who
opens to the depths of their own profound creativity must also
open the gaze to their own grief, to the places they an stopped
and the places they an not hung together properly. In the creative
act all parts of us have to go through the door, and it just so
happens that these are the parts we have disowned, that we are
most defensive about.
In the Zen tradition, they have a quality they call grandmotherly
kindness. It's the kind of fierce guardian to the door that guards
most temples in the East. The shallow interpretation of these
guardians-at-the-door has often been that they are there because
we are supposed to leave our fears behind us as we enter the temple.
My own feeling about this, and I think the perennial Eastern tradition's
experience of it, is almost the exact opposite. The guardian at
the door is meant to remind you that all parts of you must enter
But it is difficult when you at last get the paintbrush
hovering above the paper or the pen above the blank page and you
find more grief coming up rather than less. Because what you are
faced with at the beginning are all the times you previously refused
to open in the past. Not only do you have the joy of new possibility,
but you suddenly have to enter this deep well of grief connected
to what you have missed. In a recent workshop one woman confronting
"I turned my face for a moment, and it became my life."
The great Russian women poets would give gold for this line!
Gold! She goes beneath the surface: this line travels downward
forever. Here's my own poem on the matter:
The Well of Grief
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source
from which we drink
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for
The coins I discovered at the bottom of the well, the well
where I would be baptized into my own disowned grief, were all
the coins I had thrown down previously. It used to be that
we were baptized in the well; now we just get a touch on the forehead
if we are lucky. The fact is that many of us, when we come to
a well, simply throw a coin down and make a wish. The wish is
that we will not have to go down ourselves - that a secondhand
experience of it will suffice. When we refuse to go down
into this well, we call this a "creative block." Something
of an understatement, I'd say! The language is not commensurate
with the experience. And we wonder why we can't figure out what
is stopping us!
We often try to enter into any creative process by narrowing
as we go in, hoping to damp down the consequences of anything
we might come across. What would it be like to widen as we go
in, and have all the parts of us, especially the parts of us that
we feel are not successful or could never be successful, go in
together? In simple terms, to build a facility for self-compassion?
In a sense, this rebuilding of the inner ecology is perhaps
a necessary first step toward understanding our outer ecological
crisis. We could say the soul has been losing its fertile elements
over the last generations as our approach to living as become
as equally exploitative of ourselves as it has been of the land.
Paraphrasing Gregory Bateson, we are being asked to take steps
towards an Ecology of Heart and Mind. To experience intimately
how things fit together. To be a part of that fitting together.
To join in the feast, not steal it from our own and others' mouths.
What we're talking about here is essentially the grail quest,
Joseph Campbell, in his Power of Myth series, emphasized
that in the beginning of the grail quest, all the knights decided
that they should go alone, and once they decided what the quest
was, they should enter the wood at the part that seemed darkest
to themselves. You see, already you get a feeling that one has
to have this ability to allow oneself to get lost, and to be lost
in a profound way. What one has to do is give oneself over to
the longing in the question. When you do step into the gravity
field of your own longing, it becomes so strong eventually that
it feels as if there's nothing else you can do.
And the person who begins the journey and asks the question
at the beginning is not the person who actually fulfills the journey
in the end, where the journey itself becomes enough. The man or
woman who begins is very different from the person down the road,
and it's always astonishing who that person becomes. The cliché
is that they become themselves. But actually they become the place
where they meet the world!
Which brings us to storytelling. If great poetry is anything,
it is great storytelling. The way we tell our stories has a lot
to do with the way we see ourselves in the world, with our identity.
Perhaps one of the greatest blocks I see to new possibility is
our inability to tell our stories with the magnificence they deserve
- in other words, our inability to grant magnificence to our own
lives. Now, the story is magnificent only if you have the chance
of missing completely, that is, if the consequences are very high,
the stakes are very high. The tradition tells you that the stakes
are very high - that your life is at stake in not touching this
essential connection with the world, which we call creativity.
When you reach a certain depth in the telling, you realize that
the word destiny belongs to you as much as it belonged to Napoleon
or Dante or Joan of Arc. Now what would it be like to learn to
tell our own stories, not necessarily in a professional way, but
in a profound way, in a way in which the word destiny can be used
with ease in our own lives? The word destiny, itself, even as
it falls from our mouths, demands a maturity that stretches our
sense of ourselves.