Creative Transcendence

A spiritual take on the creative process

“Magic is what happens when you have encountered the Divine. It is the life-altering experiences of connecting to the divinity that dwells within yourself and in the world.” –Phyllis Curott

Creativity transcends. It surpasses the ordinary. It challenges the limits of the safe and familiar, and makes us feel things we can’t always explain. It can feel more like a spiritual experience to both the creator and the consumer — the kind of spiritual experience I live for.

For me, Jeff Buckley’s music transcends the confines of rock and roll as we once knew it. His vocals are otherworldly, and they transcend his human form. His writing style challenges the status quo and his sound is truly unique, but what I experience when I listen to his music transcends anything I can measure or effectively describe. The depth of emotion and wisdom that is saturated in his music left a legacy of recordings that are spiritual experiences all to their own.

My 79-year-old grandmother Janet has a spiritual experience every time she goes out to dance at the local VFW each Saturday night. She’s not sure why she loves dancing so much, but it transcends her age, and it’s just something she feels called upon to do. It makes her feel alive, and brings her a true sense of belonging I think. At this point in her life, she “appreciates the value of her happiness,” as author Elizabeth Gilbert might put it.

My sister Gwendolyn is a Reiki master, an Occupational Therapist, and my kind of spiritual guru. She would describe any form of prayer, act of contribution, and creative pursuit as “connecting with spirit” — the source of all things. Call it God, the Universe, or whatever you like — it’s all the same, and we are all somehow connected to it in many transparent and often transcendent ways.

It’s this elusive spiritual connection that I am convinced every creative person is in constant pursuit of, whether they know it or not.

As a singer/songwriter myself, I often describe my own creative process as a spiritual one because I am channeling something from somewhere unknown every time I write songs — as if I’m pulling information out of thin air. It feels like a collaboration with the Universe in some ways. It doesn’t always deliver a promising outcome, but when it does, there is an undeniable source at hand that provides key ingredients outside of my realm of understanding.

In the recent Netflix documentary series Cooked, Michael Pollan highlights the main ingredient in bread-making: air. The series is divided between four parts — “Fire,” “Water,” “Air” and “Earth” — with each theme focusing on the history of cooking and what we can learn from it moving forward. Pollan recounts the long history of bread-making in the “Air” episode, and its seated roots throughout so many cultures. He showcases the magic that happens when wheat flour and water are traditionally combined and fermented, and the science of microorganisms that release gases during the baking process, causing the bread to fill with air, rise, and take shape. When the bread is baked, it becomes a delicious bouquet of flavors and aromas from its release of gases combined with its light, fluffy new physical form. But Pollan further demonstrates that when you squish all the air out of a bread loaf, there’s hardly anything left to it after.

I can’t help but think of this as a mouthwatering analogy for any divine creative process. The tangible ingredients for bread in any “old world” recipe — wheat flour and water — transcend their original form in collaboration with the gases that are being produced during the baking process, and resulting in what the modern world would call “artisanal” bread. It’s a miraculous transformation, and the outcome is a work of art in its purest sense.

Writing songs requires me to show up with some key ingredients in hand — an instrument, a voice, and a willing participant. Showing up is like a coffee date with the universe in my mind, and requires one to be something of an open vessel for mysterious, creative possibilities and consequences. They say showing up is the hardest part, and I would have to agree with them — whoever they are — because it requires bravery, total vulnerability, fierce confidence, full exposure of one’s authenticity, and the will to venture into the great unknown. And if any true creation should happen during the process, it will have come from complete trust and willing participation in the process. I believe the act of showing up and connecting with forces unknown is a spiritual one, and it’s what many of us typically refer to as inspiration.

It’s not always about showing up voluntarily though. Sometimes inspiration strikes at the worst times, and we’re not always prepared for it. When a song idea sneaks up on me out of the blue, it will leave me as quickly as it arrived if I don’t stop everything to engage it. If I’m in the middle of dinner with friends for example, I will briefly excuse myself from the table if a song idea comes to mind. I usually retreat to the bathroom or somewhere private, and quickly sing the idea into my voice recorder app so I can revisit it later on.

I used to do this all the time during high school classes as well. Some of the best ideas formulated from inspiration striking during my least favorite classes, like history and mathematics. This is surely why I’m useless at trivia nights to this day, but the creative inspiration was fertile during circumstances that were difficult for me to engage, so I often “checked out” and reveled in my own creative thoughts. And while this approach never made me student of the year, it did yield some of my strongest earlier songs, like “North Star” and “Somebody Loves You,” which were both included on my sophomore, self-titled release in 2000.

I was lucky to tap into this creative realm as a teenager because it gave me such radical purpose as a young person. It’s the same process that sustains me today, and it brings a deeper sense of purpose with every creative effort. But creativity is an insatiable quest, and I believe it is because it transcends our understanding of it. Like a Buddhist’s quest for enlightenment or a Christian’s quest for life after death — it is the promise of something more. Something wondrous. Something worth believing in.

Here’s my mission

I want to change the dialogue on inner purpose. We all want a “life worth living for” before we die, so I think we need to start living a “life worth dying for” while we’re still alive. Too many people look back on their lives with heavy hearts full of regret when they could be living with radical inner purpose. So what are you dying to live for? Go ahead, get creative… Or click here for a little help from this handy creative action plan.

RIP (Radical Inner Purpose),

-Gregory Douglass

Call To Action

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