The Yoga of Creativity

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.

The first: 

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?”

The second:

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?

Anne asks:

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.

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margsun's picture

You asked, "how has your meditative practice enriched your art?" I practice integrative bodywork. In this kind of therapeutic artistry I am continually responding to information from the person present. Before I had a regular sitting practice, I was egoic about it..so I struggled..often feeling tired after.. The only reason I am still practicing and thriving after 22 years is because of my meditation practice. When I sit in stillness, non-reacting.. and all the ways I want to react.. and bring more of this me into the sessions -centered, feeling vast, unburdened, aware, non-reactive - the sessions flow rich with information both verbal and nonverbal, and the client seems to leave feeling more deeply connected, safer, feeling safe in the body in a new way- i.e. more mind-ful!

ilenevg's picture

I recently took Jukai after a 7-day Sesshin (silent retreat). Jukai is the Zen tradition of promising to keep the precepts. All my life I had been an artist until about 6 years ago when I simply stopped. Long story why, but I just stopped. In the 6 hours a day of silent meditation during Sesshin, all the old "demons" came to the surface and had to be faced. I began to see more clearly the delusions that caused me to stop doing what had been so much a part of me for my whole life. Now I wish to return to painting and drawing but more as a means of really focusing on what is before me in this present moment. I'd like it to be a part of my practice.

I've discovered a book that's been in print for years but seems to be what I need to read right now; Frederick Franck's 'The Zen of Seeing - Seeing/Drawing as meditation'. I want to return to drawing as meditation/seeing in a deep way but I want also to share this with others. I've taught drawing and painting and have often touched on this aspect of drawing as a deeper way to experience what is there before you. I want to get back to that and to bring it to others as well.

Anne, If there is any advice, I sure welcome it from you, as well as the other artists whose posts I've enjoyed reading in here.

Sincerely,
Doetsu
(my Dharma name which means "joyous way")

bhuus's picture

My experience meditating has served to create space, and wonder. As a producer, composer, and audio engineer, i find that its a constant battle to know which role is the one i need to pay attention to more, at a given time. I think its really the "space free" that seems to bring endless ideas, and motivations to work at what i love. The limitless sense of nature is what i seem to want to continually turn to.

r7carina's picture

What occurs to me is the need to slow down and quieten so that one can open to images or sound or intuition or insights from within - to receive awareness of what it to be created. Probably happens differently depending on the person, but for me I must have minimal external distraction and from others so I can experience the fullness of the inspiration and let it wash over me and fully get my attention. Could be sitting in meditation or sketching or could be dancing or playing with clay. Putting aside the constant stream of talk in my head for a while and opening another door within (right brain?) to just find out what is there. The simple -and challenging - thing is to "just start" as your son said. Bravo for him.

Anne Cushman's picture

I had a busy week and was feeling like my creativity had been swallowed whole by my email. This morning my 10-year-old son Skye suggested that we "snuggle write"--an activity he invented in which we sit side by side on the couch with our laptops, he works on his novel, and I work on mine. I was feeling completely disconnected from my material, so get back into the groove, I began free-writing in my journal. After five or ten minutes of whirlwind typing (him) and much slower typing (me) he asked me cheerfully, "How's your story going?"'

I said, "I'm not really writing it yet. I'm just taking some notes in my journal--it helps me get started writing."

He looked puzzled and said, "Not me! What helps me get started writing is just to START WRITING!"

ilenevg's picture

That is excellent! That childlike wonder we all speak of is sometimes best learned from a child, isn't it? I'm going to remember that what helps to get started painting is just to START PAINTING! Thanks for sharing that, Anne.

sagemoonspirit's picture

I am an artist. I paint, do papercrafts and mixed media. Painting is soothing and often feels like meditation. I used to be a musician/singer, but left that, pretty much, due to some issues that continue to need work.

With art, I'm unfocused, moving, producing, and never "bound" by any rules or time frames. I just sit back and let my spirituality guide the brush.

With LovingKindness,

Stephanie

r7carina's picture

This is an encouraging discussion so thanks to all. I am a painter and sculptor at heart (and astrologer), and find visual images come freely and unbidden when in meditation. Yet in the busyness of my full time job, I lose time and energy to just be with myself or allow those images to develop into art. Retirement is coming soon and I look forward to the blessing of time to explore both Tara meditation and creativity more fully. Then the challenge will be, as In the past, to develop techniques to fully express what I see in mind. Gratefully, I still have that child-like wonder and awe about our world, nature and life itself. I do understand the tension between the wild creative side and the formal spiritual practice - perhaps a healthy balance between Venus and Neptune, or Mercury and Uranus, while employing the discipline of Saturn to actually manifest the art.

wendyburch's picture

I am a poet, singer and songwriter, visual artist. I gave up meditation years ago and would like to return. I don't know what happened, other than I got more into the "real" world, a business, a marriage. I've had the sense of childlike joy since I was born till today. Is there anyone there who is a fallen meditator who has returned, and what are your results... has it made any difference.

eve11's picture

I loved your first dream! Thank you for sharing yourself. I write creatively as well, and found that before I meditated (looked at the world 'divisively') that my writing was floating on the surface--avoiding depths, and thus, quite guarded in a way. (And it still is if I am feeling defensive, or otherwise resisting rather than opening to what is.) So spirituality has improved my imagination especially and creative writing vastly from five years ago (I'd say it was really pretty stilted then). I don't think there need to be any segregation between spirituality and art--or anything for that matter. I find the point of spiritual practice is to realize directly that Everything is divine contiguous Existence and it also embraces and expresses itself in form. Perhaps we may have an "image" of what is "good," acceptable spiritual demeanor and conduct, but that seems to be another way to feed separation. (It might be a good time to research Lalla and Milarepa and Naropa.) My concepts about art and spirituality and what makes one "artistic" or "spiritual" began to collapse or dissolve--and that's been a very "good" thing!

"The bodhisattva goes completely beyond convention." - translated from the Prajnaparamita Sutra (in Mother of The Buddhas by Lex Hixon)

Anne Cushman's picture

Yes, that sense of childlike joy and wide-eyed wonder that several of you have commented on has been one of the gifts of meditation for me as well...Thanks for putting it into words so beautifully!

Hudson Gardner's picture

A very interesting question. The responses above are also very intriguing to me.

I take photos. I definitely felt the rub of this 'desire to capture' on my state of mind when I learned about Buddhism and began to meditate roughly 7 months ago. This desire, I realized, was a form of habitual addiction in my mind: if I did not have a camera with me, and I happened to see something that would make a beautiful photograph, I felt frustrated. When I had a camera in my hands, I was latently trying to make things happen, trying to cause a photo: not through directing people, or placing things, but by forcing my focus onto things, instead of letting them arise to my curiosity naturally.

Meditation sent me back to when I was younger, when I ran around the house with a house with a huge grin at full speed, and picked up beetles and spiders in the backyard and kept them in jars. I was absolutely wide-eyed with wonder. This wonder has become my style of photography now.

I use my photos now as a medium to get myself and others to stop, for a moment, and pay attention. I take photos of basically boring things, things people walk by every day, but sometimes in the instant that I glimpse them, they are filled with beauty to me. I believe each moment is inherently beautiful, one just have to know how to see it. And as the years pass, I hope this comes through in not only my photography, but in the way that I choose to live, and in the way that I support those around me. This way of being truly present for yourself and the world... it is very good to me.

Thank you for your illuminating responses. I'll have to look into that book!

Best,

Hudson

Kathryn123's picture

I started meditating a year ago and meditation has had a profound impact on my creative life. I am a watercolor artist but before that I was a musician. I stopped playing music for many years because I just wasn't enjoying it anymore. But then something amazing happened. I started making paintings about music genres, and all of a sudden I am writing music again. I feel that meditation has had a direct influence on my creativity, that it has allowed me to find joy in music again.

sagemoonspirit's picture

Your path sounds a LOT like mine !

Anne Cushman's picture

I love hearing from you painters about your experiences..painting seems similar to creative writing in some ways, yet so different in others. Your insights into letting the ego rest and stepping into "the zone" to see what naturally emerges are helpful in writing as well--yet I imagine it's so different to work directly with images rather than words. I recently taught yoga on a meditation retreat for writers and painters at Spirit Rock, so from time to time over the course of the week I'd go to the painting studio and paint for a while. It was delightfull to experiment in a wordless medium, interacting directly with colors and forms...and because I have absolutely no ego-identification with being a painter, I was able to play freely, with genuinely no attachment to a product of any kind. Such fun--and I went back to my writing with a new sense of freedom.

Kathie Corley's picture

We found an interesting thing happening as six of us gathered weekly and meditated for a half hour, painted for an hour, then shared our work. We started to notice an element would surface, the same color or shape would show up in all, or most of our work. It was intriguing to see that happen. I loved stepping aside and letting the meditative state allow me to let the page draw the colors and images my unattached mind would allow. I remained partially in the zone until the process stopped, and I knew it was time to end the painting. Immediately then my mind and ego wanted to judge, add, enhance what was there, but I struggled with myself and allowed it to BE, because I knew from past experience that if I allowed the additions, the power of the simplicity would be lost.

edevaldes's picture

I am a representational painter. For me, there is a perfect fusion of mediation,painting and drawing. To clearly see the visual field before me, I must keep my mind empty of thoughts of what things look like.
Thought preconceptions prevent me from seen things as they are. Only when my mind is open and awake do their true forms and colors are revealed. Furthermore, if I struggle to make the picture a certain way my ego prevent the natural resolution of the picture, When the ego rest, then harmony, balance, and expression intuitevly arises in a suprising and unexpected way. This process is the same in sitting meditation. The difference is that in zen the object of meditation is the breath, and in painting and drawing the object of meditation is the subject of the picture, or the picture itself. In fact, the recognition of this similarity is what motivated me to practice formal zen.

Anne Cushman's picture

Thanks, everyone, for your comments and insights! One of the things I've been doing lately--in my meditation and yoga practice as well as in my creative endeavors--is consciously inviting in the spirit of play and exploration. I know from my own experience that there's an attitude I can bring to my art, my yoga, and my meditation that can liberate me into a more alive way of being--more connected, more present, more vibrantly sensitive to myself and everything around me. However, I've also experienced the opposite--doing my writing and my practice in a way that actually contracts me and shuts me down. That tends to happen when I get caught by ambition and striving--focusing on the result, the product, rather than the process.

If I'm focused on achieving the perfect yoga backbend, the best-selling novel, or some elusive, idealized state of meditative bliss and concentration, all the joy and curiosity starts to drain out of the process itself. I forget to tune in and listen to the song that my life is actually singing, right at that moment. So I've been thinking a lot lately about how to do my writing and my yoga--or let it do me--in a way that keeps alive that sense of playful openness.

That's an attitude I know that all of you can explore for yourselves, whether you're a hairstylist, or a meditator, or a writer, or a visual artist, or just someone who wants to live a life that's creative and awake. And if you're looking for a yoga class, definitely look for a teacher who is genuinely encouraging of your process of inner investigation, rather than focused on perfecting physical forms.

Kalavati's picture

I’m a meditator, and a visual artist who took the first Mindfulness Yoga Meditation Training with you at Spirit Rock. I've found that meditation enhances everything-how can it not since it makes us so much more aware, open and flexible to changing circumstance. The only conflict I’ve felt between my creative life and spiritual path is feeling at a certain point done with the self-exploration of early childhood stuff/pain etc. I felt drawn over years of yoga and mindfulness meditation to start looking at more archetypal, visual symbols for sustenance and to nourish others. Basically I felt moved from the purely personal to more universal, in easy natural progression and I do think in part it’s a result of my spiritual practice.

greggadams's picture

Anne,
I truly enjoyed your article and it inspired me to get back to sitting on a regular basis, with the hope it will unlock my recently dormant creative side. I have never tried Yoga, but I have avoided it due to some physical pain, (arthritis). I am interested and would be grateful for any advice that would allow me to ease into it.
Peace,
Gregg

tsanborn's picture

I am a hairstylist. Meditation helps to ground me when things get so loud and crazy in the salon. I do feel conflicted all the time however as I don't feel my two worlds meld. Hair styling/fashion is what I do for a living. As I get older however, I am drawn more and more to my spiritual/ yogic side. I wish more and more to have that be a way of living for me as opposed to being in an energy draining business!

Jimmerz's picture

You asked if I've ever felt any conflict between my creative life and my spiritual path... I believe that the two do, and should, walk hand in hand...as long as we don't let the pressures of conforming our creativity to meet a purely marketable result. As in, writing something that you don't truly believe in, merely to sell a book. Nothing centers me, or prepares me to write, better than a walk in the woods before I sit down to get my ideas on paper.