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A Tricycle Discussion with Anne Cushman
Materials for online discussion:
The Yoga of Creativity: What’s the relationship between meditative practice and the artist’s journey?
Anne Cushman is the author of the novel Enlightenment for Idiots, the tale of a would-be yoga teacher’s hilarious and ill-fated quest for spiritual awakening in India, which was named by Booklist as one of the “Top Ten First Novels” of 2008. She co-directs the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Her essay “The Yoga of Creativity” in the current issue of Tricycle describes how her meditation and yoga practice helped her reclaim her creative voice as a storyteller—and explores the challenges she has faced while integrating her artistic and spiritual lives.
In “The Yoga of Creativity,” Anne writes:
A couple of years ago, about a month before my first novel was due to be published—and several months into an intensive meditation training program for yoga teachers that I was directing at Spirit Rock Meditation Center—I had two startlingly vivid dreams.
I am gliding and twirling around a roller disco, dressed only in a black velvet bikini and white fur-trimmed roller blades. When I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror, my first reaction is delight: “I look totally hot!” Then comes horror: “But what if I run into a Spirit Rock teacher while I’m dressed like this?”
My novel in hand, I have gone into therapy with a good friend of mine, a longtime teacher of yoga and Buddhist meditation. The session is held on the edge of a precipitous cliff. As the therapist tries to intervene, my friend and I keep snatching a microphone away from the other, trying to dominate the conversation. But then I tell my friend, with great intensity, “The only purpose of writing is to wake up.” So we hug each other happily and leave to attend a Buddhist yoga conference which is primarily populated by frolicking topless flamenco dancers.
In the postpartum months since my novel’s publication, I’ve thought of those dreams frequently, as I’ve struggled to balance my dual identities as a writer and a yogini. On one level, the meaning of the first dream—a skimpily clad variation on the classic “naked in a public place” nightmare—was so obvious I had to laugh. My novel, Enlightenment for Idiots, was an irreverent, occasionally racy romp through the yoga and meditation world—“imagine if Sex and the City were set in an ashram,” one yoga blogger wrote—that was getting great pre-publication reviews. But obviously I was anxious: how would the book be viewed by my dharma community and teachers?
On another level, however, the dream touched on a larger issue, which the second one amplified even further. Apparently, there’s an intimate but cliff-edge relationship between two different parts of my own psyche, archetypal characters who still have some issues to work out. One is the yogic practitioner—devoted to using the tools of posture and breath and meditation to awaken to a reality that lies beyond words, that’s larger than the stories we humans endlessly recite about who we are, who we have been, and who we might become. The other is the storyteller—devoted to putting things into words, to spinning real and imaginary tales designed to entrance an audience with the very dramas that spiritual practice is determined to transcend.
Both dreams posed a vital question, which artists on a spiritual path often wrestle with: What is the relationship between the creative process—wild, naked, unpredictable, uncontrollable, sometimes inappropriate—and the more restrained conventions of formal spiritual practice?
As well as being a meditator, are you also a painter, writer, sculptor, poet, dancer, actor, or other form of artist? How has your meditative practice enriched your art? Have you ever felt any conflict between your creative life and your spiritual path? I’d love to hear from you! And I’ll be logging on every day this week to join the discussion.