Despite having started several blogposts over the last two months, I found myself unable to finish them. It’s been a time marked by high highs and low lows—from sheer joy and gratitude at my father’s 80th birthday to overwhelming sorrow, and anger, in the wake of the Florida shootings. Atypically, the energy that ignites my writing—sparked by the play between coming home to my voice and discovering it afresh—would fade, mid-paragraph, mid-sentence. With each effort, I was left with not only another abandoned essay, but a strange feeling that something was growing deep inside of me, churning, shifting…
Much like being pregnant, this feeling is one I’ve come to recognize as essential to the creative process, an experience that always feels to me, despite (or because of) its paradoxical nature, somehow holy: when we are creating, we become a container in which our own life-experience (our particular history and biology, that which makes us unique) and the cosmic life-force (the energy of evolution that propels the acorn into the oak, the embryo into the baby, that urges the universe to ever-expand) meet and alchemize. We become sanctuaries, safe havens, temples of transformation. And yet, when we’re creating we are also contained, even colonized by the thing we appear to be birthing: as the thing inside rumbles its way into being, it feeds on our energies, is nourished by our bodies, pulls at our attention even when we will our focus elsewhere…Ostensibly the maker, we are being re-made—remade, moreover, by a process that we can feel but that we can’t quite name; remade in ways we can’t fully describe until later, after the fact. It’s a disorienting—at once unnerving and enlivening—time.
As such, this core experience of the creative process (what I’ve written about elsewhere as “the thrash”) is easy to confuse with confusion itself. How many times have you felt lost (to yourself, to others, to life), only to discover, on the far side, that what felt like a void was in fact a ripening, a time of growth, but one whose name you didn’t know, couldn’t possibly have known, because the name was itself being born? Or, how often have you felt radically disconnected from your own process—writer’s block, a weird inertia while in the midst of a new project, a sudden and pervasive numbness in the throes of love—and panicked as a result, afraid that your capability is faltering, that you must not have what it takes, that you don’t have—are not—enough?
I’ve been there many times, but it’s taken me nearly 50 years to recognize this process for what it is, and to stay the course with confidence. And while I believe that each of us must discover this for ourselves, I’ve mined some insights that I want to share with you, in hopes that they’ll help you stay the course, too. Here are the big ones:
Creativity is the pulse—quite literally—of life. It’s what fuels (and is fueled by) desire, curiosity, passion, discovery, and that ineffable, sometimes-elusive but always-insistent sense of meaning we call purpose. It shows up in art, cooking, construction, and music. In healing, accounting, planting, and sex. In medicine, engineering, science, astronomy, sports and dance. In parenting, partnering, loving, and letting go.
Creativity is generativity: forward-moving, ever-growing, and yet—its trajectory is not linear, it’s momentum not always in motion.
Hibernation, even death, are essential to the creative process of life. Fallow times, dark times—they are vital to the practice of intentional living, to creating our lives on purpose with equal measures passion and grace.
But this knowing flies in the face of much motivational talk these days. Scroll through Instagram or Facebook, and you’ll find post after post urging you take action now, assuring you that “consistency is legitimacy,” that you must “show up no matter what” in order to stave off self-doubt, to find your soulmate, to create and grow your business, to experience self-love—in short, to succeed. In the world of entrepreneurship, this advice is sacrosanct: make a plan, avoid distraction, and execute come hell or high water.
But what about those of us for whom our work in the world is inextricable from our creative process? For whom service is our deepest creative expression? For whom being consistent means being, in some ways, consistently inconsistent? What is the right balance between striving for regularity and predictability (direction, discipline, focus, persistence) and honoring the rhythmic nature of creativity itself (active/quiet, light/dark, outward/inward)?
Like the mechanism of the beating heart, or the process of birth shared by all mammals, creativity is born not by way of unwavering action, but through the pulse of contraction: surges of energy born on the back of quiet periods that appear, to the observer, so still as to be lifeless: the winter tree shorn of leaves, the tangle of brittle stalks upon which last year’s peonies balanced and billowed, the birthing woman sunk in sudden sleep between the volcanic heaves of her womb’s sharp cinch and release.
What I’ve learned—as entrepreneur, writer, coach, teacher, healer, mother, and lover—is that this rhetoric of insistent resilience doesn’t account adequately for the seasonal rhythm inherent to the creative process. It doesn’t account for the power of the threshold, for the moment of transition as itself a meaningful experience, not simply a gateway to what’s next. Instead, we have a sparse vocabulary with which to name the ways in which the apparent pause—what T.S. Eliot once referred to as “the still point of the turning world”—is not only part of, but essential to our most profound transformations and creations.
Yes, there’s a fine line between indulging in confusion (a form of avoidance, born of fear), and inhabiting uncertainty (a form of commitment, born of faith). But too often we mistake the latter for the former, and in doing so short-circuit the truly innovative potential of our own creative process.
If you are a seeker, you will without fail encounter this crossroads, this threshold, this place freighted by the unknown, and therefore fear. If you are in the midst of or approaching or just on the other side of a major transition—divorce, marriage, a new career, a move, starting a business, writing a book, having a baby, weathering a death or illness or some other significant loss—you may be tempted to too-easily retreat from the slippery dark of your own unknown and unwittingly abort some of life’s richest opportunities (for self-knowing and discovery, for growth, for connection, for creativity) in the process. You can shut down instead of expand. You can become rigid instead of receptive. Right instead of remade.
I know this temptation intimately, as I’ve often struggled with the way I work I best: intense periods of inwardness that can feel like deep-dives to oceanic depths, followed by times of rising, breaking the surface, when my senses and capacity for feeling and insight are heightened. Though I swear by the power of planning, I also know well the need to anticipate my choice to stray—and to make of this choice an opportunity for success, not failure.
But how? How do we balance the need to inhabit the between-ness of lived-life with the need to map things out and preempt distraction? How do we discern the difference between leaning into the unknown and avoiding action?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some that have, over time, reliably shown me how to move forward when I fear I’m losing my way.
So, in celebration of the Spring equinox, a time that invites and ritualizes at once both reflection and rebirth—indeed, birth born of reflection—here are 10 guideposts to help you stay (or find!) your course that honor the “detour” as essential to reaching your (often wildly surprising) destination:
1. Get to know the dark. We can be afraid of the dark or we can learn to see in the dark. To “see” in the dark has very little to do with eyesight, with penetrating and mapping, and more to do with what the poet May Swenson once described as “finding our way by feeling.” Trust your feeling, inhabit it. Pay attention to your body, to what can’t necessarily be seen, but is keenly felt.
2. Know yourself. Ask less “what do I need to do?” and more “who am I?”
3. Connect with the life force that is at once harnessing you and that you in turn harness when making, connecting, loving, creating: Breathe. Walk outside, no matter where you are, and touch the bark on a tree or the sun on a brick or the rain dripping from an eave. Remember your senses: Cook. Smell. Put your hands in the earth. On another’s body. On your own.
4. Choose love. Always choose love. Instead of asking “who will love me?” ask “what would love do?” Lean into your anger, blame, and resentment to where the tender quick of your heart palpitates with the universal rhythm of life and the longing to belong.
5. Be at once intentional and open to surprise. Plan, and anticipate detours.
6. Be disciplined and open to the calling that can pull you off course. It’s okay to wander off the path; sometimes what we discover in the brambles helps us walk farther, longer, and smarter when we return. Just be sure to mark the route back; memory is fallible, a trickster.
7. Above all else, believe in yourself. But not blindly. Believe in yourself because you are willing to see yourself, and do. Question, debate, piss off, make up with, encourage, talk to, listen to, celebrate with, and above all, respect yourself. Self-love isn’t the same as unfettered approval or habitual praise; all loving relationships generate and absorb healthy adversity at times, including the one with yourself.
8. Ask for help. Seek support. Find your teachers and guides. Know that we can’t create alone. No one ever has. Creation is inherently collaborative. That’s why creativity is generative: it is the catalyst for connection, and therefore the gateway to empathy and compassion. When you tap into your creative power, you unleash your soul’s longing for connection, for evolution-through-communion. Own and express your vulnerability and have faith that it’s your greatest strength.
9. Seek transformation, not transcendence. We are entering a new paradigm of spiritual evolution that’s defined by integration, not isolation or hierarchy. The body is wise, and the body knows its source in the earth, which is to say in the stars. When you feel achingly unsure, lean into the sensation of not-knowing; trust that you may well have exhausted one way of making sense, and that another is waiting. Say yes to the book, the movie, the walk, the friend, the music that presents itself to you at this point. The way out of stuck-ness is often surprising, and seemingly unbidden.
10. Name your shame and speak your truth, for the two go hand-in-hand. My shame-voice tends to be loudest at 4 a.m., convinced that I’m selfish, sick, or otherwise broken and insufficient. When I’m deep in the grip of my creative process, that place that sometimes feels fallow and stuck, uncertainty can trigger shame. But when I name it out loud, my shame loses its grip, and gives way to understanding (where the shame-story comes from, the nature of my needs) and therefore self-compassion. I see this over and over with my clients, too: hidden shame is a prophylactic to vulnerability and thus connection and creativity, while shame-that-is-shared is the gateway to self-empowerment.
As we enter the vernal equinox and together herald spring, I hope these words help you pause, give you permission to take a moment in the midst to observe the sensation of transition that’s nestled in the larger cycle of becoming, how beginnings are always in some way returns, and returns feel fresh for their beginnings.
Happy Spring, and much love,