on becoming an artist, part one

a book by Ellen Langer, mindfulness expert, on “reinventing yourself through mindful creativity.”

I have been intrigued by mindfulness for a long time now. When I was 21 I lived on an ashram in Indonesia for two months where we practiced mindfulness through meditation, yoga, and picking endless kapok seeds out of cotton.

When I was 26 I lived at a Buddhist Zen Center in Northern California for three years where we practiced mindfulness by sitting and staring at white walls for hours.

When I came across Ellen Langer’s book: On Becoming An Artist: reinventing yourself through mindful creativity, I wasn’t interested in the reinvention but I wanted to know about mindful creativity.

Ellen’s an expert in mindfulness, writing and teaching about it since the 70′s. Long before it was hip to write and teach about mindfulness.

In “On Becoming An Artist,” Ellen begins her plunge into mindfulness and creativity with mindlessness.

Because before we can understand how to be mindfully creative we have to know what mindless creativity looks like.

According to Ellen it looks like two things: repetition and unquestioning acceptance of things as they are.

Ellen writes:

The second way in which we become mindless is particularly important: when we hear or read something and accept it without question. Most of what we know about our world or ourselves we have mindlessly learned in exactly this way.

We don’t stop and ask: why? Does this make sense? Do I care? When did I learn this? Who taught me? Why did they believe it?

We accept so much and question so little.

When I was 40 I moved to Davis, CA. I’d gone to school there in my twenties and had fond memories. I loved college.

At 40, married and a mom of two kids, Davis was very different. It was suburbia.

And it sucked.

But it made me question: success, my values, my friendships, my ideas of who I am and what I care about.

In short, it woke me up.

That’s what I love about mindful creativity.

We go through school and we learn right and wrong, rules and behaviors, and answers. So many answers.

We stop asking questions.

Then we try to create something: something new, something interesting, something alive.

But we’ve grown accustomed to answers.

And so what we make feels stale, heavy with expectations and ideas of good and bad, should and shouldn’t, art and not art.

Or we don’t make at all because the ideas of good and bad, should and shouldn’t, art and not art, paralyze us before we even start.

That’s mindless creativity.

Mindful creativity invites, no demands, questions.

What is good? Bad? And what does it matter? Who taught me shoulds and shouldn’ts? And how can they know. And art, who decides what is art and what is isn’t?

When we start asking the questions we wake up to the ridiculousness of the answers. There is no way to know. We must decided for ourselves, after question, what we think is good or bad, art or not art, and then keep asking so that we never get locked inside of a world of answers.

That is mindful creativity.

Or at least the first piece of it. To be continued…


I’m the founder of TheCreativityHabit.com and the host of The Creativity Habit Podcast: conversations with artists, creators, and makers about art, creativity, and courage. Listen to the latest conversation here.

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