Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Getting Out of Our Own Way

I’m at our home in the country, surrounded by the silence of the snow laden woods. And I’m feelng like I want to do some painting. 

In What We Ache For, a book about doing creative work, I suggest that it’s a good idea to have a secondary form of creative expression- something you enjoy but aren’t particularly good at so you don’t have to worry about deadlines or the quality of the end product. Sometimes I remember to take my own advice and prime the creative pump for writing by messing around with paint and paper. No one, with the possible exception of my husband Jeff, is ever going to see these slashes of colour and misshappen figures. Which is why it comes as a surprise to find that I'm struggling to get out of my own way and let the process simply unfold when I have a paint brush in my hand. (And if it’s hard to do with paint play, how much harder is it to do when I’m writing a story I hope will be shared?)

The thing about creative expression- like the rest of life- is that it’s hard not to have an agenda. I’m painting in part because I’ve been having particularly wild, wooly and vivid dreams and I want to open another route into the unconscious so I can deepen my understanding of what my psyche is trying to tell me. But I find myself slipping into literalism- painting images from the dreams. This is unsatisfying (I don’t draw well) and offers me very little new information. I already know what the image looks like. I want to open to the feeling of the dreams and see what comes out on the page.

Luckily I have two friends who offer me good advice on loosening up the painting process. Linda Mulhall, an artist in Victoria B.C., suggests that I paint in a water colour style- wetting the page and thinning the paint so control is not possible. A challenge for my meticulous side but it yields some interesting and unexpected results. Nancy Hill, a therapist and workshop leader in Chicago who has done process painting with Michele Cassou, suggests that I start with some representation of myself- ignoring realism of colour, proportions or details- since whatever the unconscious (collective or personal) offers, it will come to me through me. Nancy also sends me an email with a useful insight that applies to both creativite work and life in general: 

“The process requires that we let go of our agenda. As long as you want something to be revealed, it is hard to allow the intuition to lead.” 

Hmmmm. But I do want something to be revealed! And I probably have more than a couple of ideas about what that something should be or where I hope it will take me. 

And therein lies the problem- not just with creative work of course, but with much of our lives. We have a hard time getting out of our own way and letting all the forces working on our behalf- our unconscious, our dreams, the divine, our hearts, the implicate order of the universe, kismet- to offer us what we need. We seem to arrive at many if not most of life’s moments full of agenda, wanting something, wanting to be better- more compassionate, more insightful, calmer, happier, more generous, more efficient, more productive, kinder, more conscious, wiser. . . . the list is endless and admirable. But maybe the real work is to acknowledge our agenda and remember that, given the complexity of the universe, we are limited in our knowledge of how to make what we think we need happen. If we cultivate a willingness to be surprised, to be aware of but not focused on our agenda maybe, just maybe, we will learn something we didn’t already know. And that’s when things really get interesting.

I am taking these words back to my painting now to see what emerges that is mysterious, to receive what comes and sit with it as a gift, a signpost, a symbol whose meaning may never be completely revealed. I won’t pretend I don’t have an agenda- the universe is not that easy to fool. But I will allow space for surprises, wlll step out of the way so I can follow the impulse that comes. Who knows? I just may see something I have never seen before.


  1. oh yes, i love this... letting go of agendas. it is the place where we reside as open channel and just allow. what happens in relationships, within oursleves and in our creative process is so powerful because we have put our "little" agenda (the end cap) out of the way in order to make room for greater forces to come through. thanks too for the reminder to engage in other creative activity to replenish and nourish. Laurel

  2. After reading "What We Ache For" this weekend, one thing I became particularly aware of was my attachments - to ideas, perceptions, perspectives, impressions, judgments, etc. I suppose agenda and attachments could be interchangable but for some reason the word attachment subtly implies a need to let go, to release or detach.

    And with regard to "getting out of our own way", I wrote this in my journal last week and recalled it this morning after reading the blog.
    An excerpt: "...wondering whether there is a line where so much thinking and analyzing becomes what point does the mind get in the way of itself and deafen the spirit...the soul, by it's very nature would be more a part of a nonphysical reality than a physical one, so can one's cognitive ability be the sole bridge to enlightenment? I am interested in discovering the balance between stimulating the brain and finding my truths but leaving the window open to the soul in order to experience that which cannot be thought or created."

    Thank you for another thoughtful post Oriah!


  3. One of my "teachers" is an artist who does wet on wet watercolor. Terry Gill showed me how badly I wanted to have control or as you so gently called it an agenda. He speaks of letting the painting emerge and it works ( most times ) surprises and spirit like things come - if I am patient.
    I am now working with torn paper and again am faced with trying to control ....and I hear "let go, let go"
    And this echos in my life .... the more I let go of control - the more things just seem to work out. Perhaps agenda is like an Intention, have one, then let Spirit move in, through and around me and my work.
    What We Ache For is my favorite of your books, whenever I feel ( or think ) I am not an artist, I pick your book up !!


  4. Dead on... the more I write for the public, the more I become constricted in writing, controlled by the limitations I ascribe to whichever forum that particular set of words is destined. "I can't say that, there". "That's going on my blog, and my mother reads my blog" (I don't think she reads yours so I'm safe here...looks around nervously, continues.)

    But in photography I'm an amateur who knows he's just playing, so I loosen up and let the images swirl. It's being able to listen to what we have created, rather than controlling where it goes. One of the many great writers in the Guardian's recent and quite magnificent "Advice on how to Write Fiction" ( says " Respect the way characters may change once they've got 50 pages of life in them. Revisit your plan at this stage and see whether certain things have to be altered to take account of these changes." That's not just good advice about writing; it's good advice about living.

  5. What a wonderful posting! YES, we often get in the way of ourselves and this is something everyone can contemplate. It often manifests itself in even the most minute parts of our lives -- yet we still think we "know better." Why not cultivate a life where we can "feel better"?

    Oriah, I sympathize with your painting woes. Artistic expression used to be a favorite outlet of mine (along with the written word, of course) but once I became so invested in the outcome, I stopped finding peace within the process. It's a matter of focus - you can focus on the outcome or on the journey. I have slowly been working art back into my life (teeny, tiny baby steps really). A few ideas for you:

    - Paint with your non-dominant hand. For some reason, this really takes away any ideas of what the final product will look like - and it becomes a learning process, a fun journey of novelty.

    - Set a (somewhat short) time limit for yourself. 30 minutes. 45. Whatever you think would be too short for a "proper" or aesthetically pleasing picture to arise. The limit will force you to quicken your actions, which leave little time to think and an abundant of opportunity for intuition to take over.

    I hope you are able to find joy in your artwork. It IS a process... and it can take practice to let go. Thank you for a wonderful posting.

  6. I have never tried painting as a way to get in touch with my subconscious but would love to try it some day.

    A good pointer for me is my emotions - very positive and very negative emotions tell me that I have moved from my center, moved away from what simply is.

    "Trying" to be centered or any kind of effort to be centered will not work because you are already feeling it and wanting to change or justify what is, is only coming from the mind and not a place of being.

    What works for me is non-judgmental observation of what is happening, not trying to change it or justify it but see what ever it is I am feeling, feel it fully - what that means is observe and stay with the feeling without needing to change it. Observation of self moves you away from being caught in the drama so you can be an observer, a non judgmental observer of what is happening. This is a transformative process in itself. I first experienced this with Jan Frazier who is also an amazing teacher living her truth.

    The other way I learn about my subconscious is by looking into the mirror of Life. Typically the events and people around us are mirroring what our subconscious mind is creating. We are powerful creators without even knowing that we are powerful creators :) So when my husband's or child's or client's actions are not feeling good, it is not them, but me and a great opportunity to looking into myself - what am I creating here - what is this telling me about my subconscious self.

    Such an amazing jigsaw puzzle this Life is! Such fun!!!

  7. Oriah,

    Thank you again for writing about the truths you are discovering in your life. I can relate to having "more than a couple ideas about what something should be or where I hope it will take me."

    I found myself recently in a situation where I REALLY wanted things to go my way. I confessed the feelings I had been hiding from a friend for quite some time. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what would be best, because she saw potential, but wasn't sure if beyond friendship would work. I thought I had the right answer: that we should just dive in and give it a try. I tried forcing her to see the situation my way, to change her mind. She was so patient with me... and I was so impatient with her. I had an agenda and was determined to follow through with it. As a result, I was quick to judge and forgot that what would be best for me, wouldn't be what was best for her. I was so focused on my own well-being, that I forgot about hers. Not okay...

    As a result, we're giving each other time and space to sort out our feelings. As soon as we made this decision, I have been able to breathe and take a step back from the chaos of deep emotions that were swirling around. I agree with what Shalini wrote above, "What works non-judgmental observation of what is happening, not trying to change it or justify it but see whatever it is I am feeling, feel it fully...without needing to change it." Oriah, how I wish now in retrospect that I could have dropped my agenda. Hopefully I'll get it right next time. Shalini, you are right. It is truly "a transformative process in itself."

    Thank you Oriah and all who post comments (I always enjoy the comments to Oriah's entry just as much as the entry itself).


  8. yes, to step aside and let the magic happen. with your inspiration, today i will lessen the grip on my agenda and "allow space for surprises". thank you.

  9. Melissa, just as I received your comment and smiled at the very useful concept of lessening our grip on agenda, I received a FB comment from Nancy Hill mentioning that we can loosen our grip on agenda. Already loved the phrasing but the synchronicity reminded me that this is a realistic human hope. We don't get rid or all our agendas, we don't put aside all attachment (a spiritual ambition that leads to denial of agendas and a kind of idolatry re; detachment) but in our best moments we an loosen/lessen our grip. Thank you. O

  10. Possibly tangential to your thoughts, but today's title required that I share this with you:
    My paternal grandfather was a cabinetmaker whose work blurred the line between artisan and artist. When I was in my teens and he was in his seventies, Pop and I were hired by my dad to panel the inside of a huge banana warehouse with cypress planks. Pop had already undergone a couple strokes, walked with a cane and had some difficulty talking, but he could still drive a nail as well as anybody.
    When I drove a nail, I would give it a couple of light taps to get it started, but I noticed that Pop would drive the nail halfway in with the first swing. Finally, I asked "Why do you hit the nail so hard on the first swing?"
    "To get it in the board."
    "Well, aren't you afraid you'll smash your thumb?"
    He paused, looked at me for a moment, and said "I don't aim for my thumb."
    I have tried to make that simple sentence my anthem.
    How often does visualizing failure forestall success in our endeavors? How much more could we all accomplish if we could just learn to never aim for our thumbs?

  11. Bob, tangential is fine, tangential means the pot is being stirred. Great story and metaphor. Of course sometimes we don't have the skill to hit where we aim- but even then, most of the time the result is not life and death so holding back really just undermines what we might create, Thanks for this, Oriah

  12. I'm reminded of Ann Mortifee, the supremely musical and theatrical mystic behind "Journey to Kairos", and our first interview, when she told me spontaneously, "You know what's wrong with you? You're too organized. [sic] We're going to go for a walk and see where we end up." Doing so was wonderfully liberating, and it occurs to me now that creative freedom does not need a medium.
    I had just seen another episode of the current final season of Lost when I read this latest of your benevolent provocations, and it occurred to me that you could have been talking about the series, either its characters or its viewers. Those with commitment to things making linear sense are getting to be terribly frustrated. Those who flow with the goings on are open to illumination.
    More clearly synchronous for me was having just been a participant in a family art weekend, my first. The theme was Mandalas, and I decided to accept the invitation when I woke with the vague concept of a Mandala of Purpose.
    High concept and ... well ... hard to match with my intent at the opening circle — to be intuitive (rather than to forfend with cleverness against the bullet of shame.) Intuition was also challenged by the fact that the possibilities of the medium (acrylics) were so unfamiliar, and the women had between them several hundred tubes, most of which misled me about the actual color of the contents.
    I got going when a voice told me that "the mandala of purpose is not strained."
    And mine eventually manifested as a closed circular turbulence of writhing colors from which one combo confluences and bursts out in one direction.
    Sounds good in words, eh? Wait till you see my NEXT writhing exercise.
    Then ... with extra time, as Kaye observed, it was hard not to 'fix' what was errant and raw. I added a nice purple treeline. A mackerel sky. Other disimprovements. I also learned a lot from watching actual artists (the four women) do their very different things ... and was amazed that all four independently had done what I did in breaking through the defined borders of their own mandalae. I doubt I came to new conclusions, but I'm sure I am now more open to new possibilities, which I think is somewhere at the heart of your vision too, Oriah. (Thank you for this forum, this invitation to explore.)

  13. Wilder, loved the "writhing exercise"- which is an apt description of some of my writing these days. While reading I had an image of Jung's mandalas (have The Red Book which includes his spectacular artwork) - have been mulling using that form to start a painting- and do my own writhing. Thanks.