Thursday, March 6, 2008

Stillness and Nothingness

Or, how you can conquer creative burn-out.

The Artist as Sisyphus
"The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." - Albert Camus

Artists, it seems, put a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves to be creative, productive, and successful (not necessarily but sometimes in the monetary sense) all the time.

When we're not creating something new or acting on newfound inspiration, we easily get down on ourselves, questioning why we're not living up to our constantly climbing expectations. Many of us are not only seeking to create and innovate regularly, we're striving to produce art all the time. Because, well, we're artists!

We are self made Sisypheans: Pushing our rock up the hill eternally, only to reach the top and lose our grip, and the rock comes tumbling down, erasing our accomplishments... While this is an inherent element of being an artist, the uphill struggle can be exhausting. This is burn out.

Sometimes you just need to step away from the stone and let it sit at the bottom of the hill.

Zen and the Art of Bellydance
"As long as you seek for something, you will get the shadow of reality and not reality itself." - Shunryu Suzuki

Throughout the years I have discovered that being creative, as well as all learning many other aspects of this dance, is an experiment in Zen. The Oracle (Wikipedia) tells us that "Zen is notable for its emphasis on mindful acceptance of the present moment, spontaneous action, and letting go of self-conscious, judgmental thinking." I'm hardly an expert on Eastern philosophy, but my experiences with dance have been that when I let go of my self-criticism, my high expectations, and accept where I am at this moment, I progress much further in my art than when I force it.

I've noticed that my students are more likely to accomplish a troublesome movement when they take a moment to just play with it, releasing the inner analyst and critic. They beautifully perform the movement without thinking about it. I find this to be true with myself, as well. If I approach the movement without analyzing it, without forcing it, the more effortless and natural that movement becomes. Just as with technique, this is also true for the creative process.

Let your art happen independently of you.

Clearing the Creative Clutter
"The quieter you become, the more you can hear." - Baba Ram Dass

To pause the constant stream of dance aspirations in my head, I like to involve myself in activities completely unrelated to my artistic pursuits. No listening to potential dance music. No searching for new costuming ideas. No shopping for new DVDs, and no watching of dance performance or instructional DVDs. (I will, however, answer e-mails and phone calls related to the business end of my dancing, as that does not seem to interfere much with my creative process, but your experience might be different.) Eschewing these activities is the equivalent of a creative fast.

My favorite activity is listening to music to which I have no intention of dancing. For me, this usually means progressive rock like Rush (of course), Yes, Dream Theater, and others. The works of J. S. Bach also help clear out my creative clutter.

If you're constantly working on costuming, try putting it aside and working on a different craft. If you're constantly watching dance instructional or performance videos, watch something different, and don't seek inspiration in whatever new program you choose to watch. Just enjoy watching it for the program's sake. If you're constantly reading newsgroups that only focus on dance, stop reading those newsgroups for a while and read a book unrelated to dance or to creativity. (I love science writing, but I know that's certainly not something that appeals to all of you.) Sometimes it is good to stay in touch with what others are discussing, but it's easy to get sucked in to the endless dribble of dance drama as well. I find that those newsgroups offer lots of chaff and not a lot of wheat.

Find an activity you enjoy that is unrelated to your creative pursuits. Immerse yourself in that activity, relish it, and you'll find yourself feeling mentally and emotionally refreshed. And most importantly, (I think this is the most difficult part for us) give yourself permission to step away. Time away from your art will do you no good if you constantly feel guilty for not creating. You must consider your creative break as a gift to yourself.

The Enjoyment of Now
No thought, no reflection, no analysis, no cultivation, no intention; let it settle itself....

By turning your focus away from your creative pursuits (in my case, dance), you'll find yourself focusing on the enjoyment of now, rather than the anxiety of making your next great artistic creation. Your enjoyment of now will help you quiet your judgemental mind, your No Demon, your doubts and fears.

Why is Now so difficult to enjoy? Because once you recognize it, it's gone. That tiny point between the cones in the somewhat esoteric image above is Now. Compared with the history of what has happened and the possibilities of what is to come, Now is miniscule. But that doesn't mean you can't revel in it when you're there. And you're there right now. And now. And now.

Permission to Stop
Allow yourself time away from your art. Acknowledge it as healthy, refreshing, replenishing, and nourishing to your artistic self. When you feel the loom of burn-out approaching, recognize it, and take that moment to still your creative quests and refill your artistic well.

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